Film

Exposing Rodrigo Duterte’s War on the Free Press

Director Ramona Diaz and journalist Maria Ressa discuss their struggles to make A Thousand Cuts, a film about the autocratic president of the Philippines.

From A Thousand Cuts (2020), dir. Ramona Diaz (all images courtesy David Magdael & Associates)

On July 10 of this year, the Philippines House of Representatives voted 70-11 against the license renewal for ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media network. Maria Ressa, executive editor of Rappler, another Filipino news outlet, has faced spurious charges of cyber libel and tax evasion. She sees this as retribution for her four-year crusade against the dictatorial President Rodrigo Duterte, as well as his ever-growing army of online supporters who cheer on his sexism, homophobia, and violence.

It is against this bleak political landscape that director Ramona Diaz sets her new documentary A Thousand Cuts, in which Ressa and Rappler’s fight against Duterte’s war on the press takes center stage. Diaz and Ressa sat down with Hyperallergic for an interview over Zoom. “It started with me wanting to make a film on Duterte’s war on drugs,” Diaz explains. “The global audience would probably look at that and think it to be something that was affecting only people in the Philippines. Maria’s was the loudest voice against Duterte. She was questioning the government-aided dissemination of disinformation and connecting it with Duterte’s impunity. The issue of disinformation is very global, and I wanted people all over the world to take note.”

“It all goes back to Silicon Valley,” Ressa adds. A Thousand Cuts follows the Philippines 2019 legislative elections, when for the first time in 80 years, the opposition failed to secure even a single seat. It illuminates the Duterte government’s use of propaganda and social media to lie to their citizens, obscuring what many of them know to be the truth. This “post-truth” reality is one many people are now far too familiar with, even outside the Philippines. “When Facebook sells our most vulnerable data to the highest bidder, we no more have facts to hold each other accountable by. Accountability from the tech companies is a prerequisite to claim our democracies back. You do not have democracy if you don’t have facts,” Ressa asserts. In one scene, Duterte tells a Rappler journalist, “You will be allowed to criticize us. But you will go to jail for your crimes.” I was immediately reminded of the likes of Gauri Lankesh and Vikram Joshi, journalists back home in India who were murdered for speaking out against the country’s Hindu nationalist government.

From A Thousand Cuts

Diaz’s previous film, Motherland (2017), focused on the world’s busiest maternity ward in Manila’s Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital. Its concurrent themes of women’s bodies and the state’s multi-pronged control over them are carried into A Thousand Cuts. Duterte’s government directly encourages rape threats and the sexist dehumanization of Ressa and her colleagues, such as reporter Pia Ranada. At the same time, the state uses the hyper-sexualized bodies of women like pop star Mocha Uson to titillate citizens into voting their way. “We must never get used to it,” Diaz insists. “If every time he opens his mouth, something misogynist comes out, it should shock us every time.” Ressa sums up the tragic virulence of this scenario when she responds, “Which ‘he’ are you referring to?” As much as Duterte’s “jokes” may shock, the women in his crowds hooting in approval deal the heaviest blow. Misogyny is infuriating, but it’s even worse to see who willingly serves as its foot soldiers.

From A Thousand Cuts

In a scene at a rally, Duterte uses his microphone to demonstrate a vulgar joke about his penis. It inescapably brings to mind a president who was plainly recorded boasting about grabbing women by their private parts. Misogyny, fascism, repression of the press, and fake news go hand in hand, and this is not solely a Filipino problem. They surround people in so many countries so densely that we can become dulled to their effects. A Thousand Cuts is a firm refusal to let unholy intersectional fascism be normalized. During a Rappler holiday party, Ressa tells her colleagues, “We cannot become monsters when fighting monsters.” A Thousand Cuts is a document of journalistic resistance to monsters and their methods of seducing people into inertness. To finish her toast, Ressa says: “And the only thing that keeps us from becoming monsters is love.”

A Thousand Cuts opens in virtual cinemas August 7. 

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