Review: ‘A Thousand Cuts’ (2020), starring Maria Ressa

August 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maria Ressa in “A Thousand Cuts” (Photo courtesy of PBS Distribution and Frontline)

A Thousand Cuts” 

Directed by Ramona S. Diaz 

Some language in Tagalog with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Philippines and the United States, the documentary “A Thousand Cuts” features interviews with a predominantly Filipino group of people about journalist Maria Ressa, the CEO of the Filipino news media outlet Rappler, and Rappler’s coverage of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte and his “war on drugs” in the Philippines.

Culture Clash:  Rappler has come under attack by Duterte and his supporters, igniting debates and conflicts over what is “fake news” and what is “freedom of the press.”

Culture Audience: “A Thousand Cuts” will appeal primarily to people interested in issues of democracy, the media and constitutional freedoms, regardless of which country is grappling with these issues.

The Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte (center) in “A Thousand Cuts” (Photo courtesy of PBS Distribution and Frontline)

What happens when the president of a democratic country, with a constitution that’s supposed to guarantee freedom of the press, goes to war against the leader of a news outlet that has been openly critical of the president? The riveting documentary “A Thousand Cuts” (directed by Ramona S. Diaz) goes inside that war between Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte and Rappler, a Manila-based online news website.

Rappler executive editor/CEO Maria Ressa, who is a partial owner of Rappler, is the main focus of the documentary, which has an up-close look into her life during her battles with the Duterte administration. “A Thousand Cuts” unapologetically takes the side of Rappler and the media overall, but the movie also includes viewpoints from both sides of the conflict.

In 2016, Duterte was elected president of the Philippines on a populist platform and an image that he was a political outsider who would be tough on crime. His controversial rhetoric includes crude language, sexist comments and open disdain for the media that have resulted in many people describing him as the Donald Trump of the Philippines. (Ironically, Duterte is chairman of the PDP–Laban Party, which has usually had a reputation for being left-leaning and liberal.) One of the top priorities in Duterte’s agenda is his “war on drugs,” in which he openly declares in speeches and in interviews that he wants everyone who sells, buys or uses illegal drugs in the Philippines to be murdered.

Before becoming president of the Philippines, Duterte was mayor of Davao. Under his leadership in Davao, the high murder rate and government-sanctioned “death squads” came under intense criticism from human-rights groups such as Human Rights Watch. However, this controversy apparently helped his presidential campaign. Duterte is not interviewed in “A Thousand Cuts,” which has archival news clips of some his speeches and interviews, including exclusive on-camera interviews that he did with Ressa before he turned against her and Rappler.

And when Duterte became president, he continued his “death squad” policies as his administration’s way of battling crime, this time on a national level. (“A Thousand Cuts,” which is being distributed in U.S. cinemas by PBS Distribution and Frontline before debuting on PBS’s “Frontline” series, can be considered the companion piece to the documentary “On the President’s Orders,” which “Frontline” debuted in 2019.)

Rappler was one of the media outlets in the Philippines that dared to question these policies and demand that Duterte and his administration be held accountable for senseless murders done in the name of enforcing the law. Complicating matters is that the police could be committing these murders, or the murders could be committed by vigilante citizens. Either way, during Duterte’s rule, open season has been declared on people suspected of being involved in illegal drugs.

Many of the thousands of people murdered in the Philippines since Duarte because president (estimates range from 4,500 to more than 20,000 murder victims by “death squad”) were suspected of low-level crimes, but had not been given a chance to go through due process under the law. And an untold number of those victims might not have been guilty of any crimes.

Rappler published the names, faces and background stories of several murder victims to show that these victims were unfairly murdered for suspected crimes that did not justify their brutal killings. It wasn’t long before Rappler began running into legal troubles from the government. In 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission of the Philippines revoked Rappler’s certificate of incorporation.

In 2019, Rappler was sued for cyberlibel, while Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. were arrested and faced criminal charges for libel. In March 2019, one month after being arrested for libel, Ressa was arrested for alleged violations of the Anti-Dummy Law, a law created to punish those who violate foreign equity restrictions and avoid nationalization laws of the Philippines.

“A Thousand Cuts,” which was filmed primarily in 2018 and 2019, only chronicles the arrest and legal procedures of Ressa, not Santos. Her libel trial began in June 2019. When “A Thousand Cuts” had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the outcome of Ressa’s libel trial was pending. The movie has since been updated with an epilogue of the trial’s outcome.

The movie gets its title from the concept of how a thousand cuts can accumulate over time to a brutal slaying. Ressa invokes this concept during a speech that she gives at De La Salle University in Manila, where she comments on what the Duterte administration is doing to the Philippines: “What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts to our democracy.”

In addition to Ressa, other members of the Rappler team who are featured in the documentary are investigative reporter Patricia Evangelista, police beat reporter Ranbo Talabong and Malacañan Palace reporter Pia Ranada. Evangelista explains why Duterte appeals to his Filipino supporters: “He offers not just change. He offers revenge.”

One of the outspoken Duterte supporters who’s interviewed in the documentary is Mocha Uson, a member of the singing/dancing group Mocha Girls, who became a prominent government official in the Duterte administration, despite having no political experience. In 2017, she was appointed assistant secretary of presidential communications operations, which essentially involves a lot of social media activities to promote Duterte’s policies and to sell Duterte merchandise. (There’s footage of Uson shilling some of this merchandise in an infomercial-like format.)

In 2018, Uson resigned from the position after a controversial stint in which she was frequently accused of spreading “fake news.” In 2019, Duterte appointed Uson to another government position: deputy executive director of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. This appointment caused even more controversy.

Uson says in the documentary, “I never planned to go into politics. When I supported then-mayor Duterte, it was voluntary.” She and others in the documentary say that her influential blog, which is read by millions of people, helped get Duterte elected. Uson comes across as someone who would rather be in showbiz, but she’s working in politics because it’s given her access to power.

And later in the documentary, Uson tells a very tragic story about the personal reason why Duterte has her loyal support. Uson says that her father, who was a judge, didn’t really approve of her working in the entertainment industry, because he didn’t think being a dancer was a “real job.” This disapproval led to her being estranged from her father for many years, but they eventually reconciled. The day after their reconciliation, her father was shot to death.

Uson says of her father’s murder: “He was a judge and handling a mayoral electoral protest, so it was political.” She adds, “What President Duterte said is true. There are criminals pretending to be politicians, so that’s who killed my father.”

Bato De La Rosa is another extroverted character who has expressed undying loyalty to Duterte. A former general who was in charge of the Filipino prison system, De La Rosa (who is a member of the PDP–Laban Party) ran for office in a crowded race for a seat in the Philippines Senate in 2018. De La Rosa is not interviewed in the documentary, but there is video footage of him doing an ABS-CBN interview where he says of Duterte: “I would kill for the president.”

De La Rosa has a flamboyant “look at me” public persona where he displays some unorthodox campaign methods, such as singing and dancing at his campaign rallies, where he looks like he wants to give a music concert instead of a political speech. And when he does political speeches during the campaign, they echo much of what Duterte spouts in his speeches, such as people involved in illegal drugs must be killed and the media can’t be trusted.

The documentary also includes some footage of De La Rosa, before he declared his campaign to become a senator, visiting the maximum security New Bilibid Prison for men. He addresses a large crowd of seated prisoners and asks some of them to open their mouths so he can look at their teeth. He accuses the prisoners with missing teeth of being meth addicts.

And then, De La Rosa gives a short, scolding speech that has an almost cheerful, upbeat tone, in which he warns: “Trust me, I have my own way of stopping you from doing your illegal acts.” He then asks the group of prisoners to give a “gentlemen’s agreement” that they will stay away from drugs. The prisoners then cheer as De LaRosa leaves, as if they know his appearance is just a spectacle for show, and they’re playing along.

“A Thousand Cuts” features Samira Gutoc, one of De La Rosa’s opponents in the senatorial race. Gutoc was a candidate from the Otso Diretso Party, an electoral alliance that’s an opposition party to Durtete and his administration. Gutoc comments in the documentary about why she is opposed to Durtete and his policies: “You can’t be judge and executioner at the same time.”

The movie doesn’t try to sugarcoat that journalists who speak out or report on controversial issues are not immune to criticism too. The documentary includes some coverage of the vicious cyberbullying that Ressa receives. Ressa comments on “fake news” accusations: “The end goal is to make you doubt the facts.”

In another part of the documentary, Rappler’s Evangelista gets teary-eyed and emotional when she talks about the toll that her job has taken in her personal life: “It sort of leaks into every part of your life: the paranoia. Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”

The documentary also includes footage that gives a peek into but not a full revelation of Ressa’s personal life. Ressa, who is not married and doesn’t have children, doesn’t discuss her love life, but the cameras tag along when she spends time with her sisters Michelle Aventajado and Mary Jane Ballinger. Ressa is shown having dinner with Aventajado and discussing Ressa’s busy work schedule.

And when Ressa is in the New York City area to attend the the Time 100 Gala as an honoree, Ballinger is seen with Ressa in Ressa’s hotel room. They have some light-hearted banter because Ballinger has picked out a gown and high heels for Ressa to wear to the gala, but Ressa declines because she says she prefers wearing trousers and flat-heeled shoes.

George and Amal Clooney make a cameo in the film, as Ressa is also seen attending the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch launch event in New York. While the famous couple is on stage for a discussion panel, George Clooney singles out Ressa from the audience to commend her for her bravery, and he says that she has their support. After the event, Amal Clooney offers her personal email address to Ressa, and they engage in some pleasant small talk.

Despite hobnobbing at these glamorous events, Ressa’s legal problems are never far from her and her family members’ minds. While visiting with her sister in her hotel room, Ballinger begins to cry when she expresses fear about what will happen to Ressa in the trial, while Ressa tries to ease her sister’s fears by remaining practical and optimistic. Ressa says she’s mentally prepared for any outcome because she’s already decided what to do in the worst-case scenario.

Ressa (who was born in 1963) opens up a little bit about her background, which explains why she is able to deal with the type of adversity that would break other people. She says that her biological mother died when Ressa was only a year old. Ressa’s father and stepmother moved to the United States without Ressa because they couldn’t afford to bring her with them when they sought a better life in America.

When she was 10 years old and they could afford to raise her, they sent for her, and the family settled in Toms River, New Jersey. Ressa had to learn English and adjust to living in a country where her skin color and ethnicity made her a minority. She says of being a person of color who expects to be treated equally in a predominantly white society: “You have to prove that you deserve it.”

Ressa graduated from Princeton University in 1986, and earned a Fulbright Fellowship to study political theater at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She ultimately made the choice to permanently move back to the Philippines. In the documentary, Ressa admits she briefly thought of not returning to the Philippines to avoid her legal problems, but she says she knows that would be a mistake and a betrayal of all her values. She also says that facing the attacks and legal issues is part of a larger cause in the fight for freedom of the press.

“A Thousand Cuts” director Diaz doesn’t lose sight of this big picture either. The obvious message of the movie is that attacks on constitutional freedoms (such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech) are attacks on democracy. And although “A Thousand Cuts” focuses specifically on the Philippines, the documentary also serves as a dire warning that other democracies could face the same problems if they’re not careful.

PBS Distribution and Frontline released “A Thousand Cuts” in select U.S. cinemas on August 7, 2020. PBS’s “Frontline” series will premiere the movie in January 2021.