Journalist Maria Ressa was convicted of “cyber libel” just as Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary about her, called “A Thousand Cuts,” was due to premiere at AFI Docs in June. Ressa had for years worked for a press outlet called the Rappler, which was severely critical of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime and stifling of the free press.
“We anticipated it,” said Diaz, whose “A Thousand Cuts” began streaming earlier this month. “We hope for the best, but we know the political realities on the ground” in the Philippines, where Duterte has been at constant war with the press.
In “A Thousand Cuts,” the journalist Ressa is seen campaigning for the types of press freedoms most in the West take for granted. Duterte’s minions quash any dissent, with journalists in the Philippines jailed or worse for speaking out against him. Ressa has been among his most outspoken critics, including criticizing his wish to simply shoot drug dealers dead on the streets.
Diaz, who was born in the Philippines but lives in America, said she had finished work on her previous film, “Motherland,” when she became alarmed by reports coming from her native land of Duterte’s strongarm tactics. There might be a documentary there, she felt.
“I was raised under martial law. I left before the Marcoses fled because I came to this country for university,” Diaz said of the parallels between the reigns of Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos (she made a short film about the Marcoses in 2003 and will next make a full-length feature about Imelda Marcos.) “It was interesting for me to look at a country that had seemingly left a dark past returning to it.
“By May of 2018 I moved to the Philippines to look for the story beyond the drug war, and I realized Maria and Rappler were the ones really questioning the president loudly. And they were getting punished for it.”
Ressa’s David-versus-Goliath story was the perfect analogue to focus the lens onto the worldwide issue of press suppression and disinformation, Diaz felt. She found it necessary to also interview members of the Duterte regime ahead of the midterm elections of 2019, but her “hero” would be Ressa herself.
“We didn’t leave her side for four or five months. We traveled with her to D.C. and New York,” Diaz said. “And of course I still continued filming the other characters because I found that context was key to understanding what Maria is going through.”
But then came Ressa’s arrest, as part of the regime’s attempt to silence her. Diaz said she has continued to speak with Ressa during her being in jail and subsequent trial. While Diaz said that Ressa always anticipated an outcome of this kind, Ressa continued to show a poise and equanimity even as Duterte threw the entire apparatus of state at her.
“If you look at the press conference right after the guilty verdict, she was so calm and clear. And I was like, how does she do that?” Diaz said.
The Philippines’s slide back toward autocracy has been sped up thanks to the covid-19 pandemic. The regime imposed a serious lockdown on the populace to control the spread of the disease, but along with that came an overreach—just as in the drug war, Diaz believes.
“Duterte has had a very militaristic response to covid-19, and not a public health response. ‘If you’re not in compliance, we’re going to shoot you.’ Just like the drug war,” she said. “Any other time there would have been protests by now.”
Diaz said that the pandemic has actually been a gift to Duterte, allowing him to impose even stricter limits on freedom of movement and expression in the Philippines. However, just as in the United States, it is the younger generations who are hitting the streets to protest.
“They see Black Lives Matter and they connect to it. They say, OK, we can protest here,” Diaz said. “It’s global, all these protests. It’s a global moment. The ground is really shifting underneath us, I hope.”
However, Duterte’s power isn’t just about physically intimidating protestors in the streets. He also employs a sophisticated army of trolls to dox dissidents online, as shown in “A Thousand Cuts.”
“Maria told me, ‘You’re going to get my trolls,’ [which] as you see in the film are horrific,” Diaz said, adding that the trolling got more strident the closer the premiere date came for “A Thousand Cuts” this spring.
However, Diaz and her producers, sensing an opportunity, decided to release the film early in the Philippines in the spring to coincide with the verdict, followed by a group chat with Diaz, Ressa, Ray Lee Aronson of “Frontline” and a member of the International Center for Journalists.
Diaz expected maybe 20,000 to 50,000 viewers.
“It was 230,000 people who saw the film inside 24 hours,” she enthused, but added that the Filipino audience was “heartbroken” by what they saw in her documentary. “There was anger yes, but mostly sadness at what had happened to the country—compounded by that it was the 11th week of a very strict lockdown [adding to] this sense of isolation.”
Furthermore, the government had also just unveiled a new antiterror bill, which grants the government sweeping powers to pick up anyone accused of terrorism. Even dissenting speech falls under that umbrella.
“ I can handle anger, but the deep sadness really threw me,” Diaz said of the Filipinos’ reaction to that initial day-long availability of “A Thousand Cuts” this spring. “I needed time to process all that sadness that was coming my way.”
Furthermore, she is seeing the same kinds of oppression in her adopted country as in her native land.
“When I see CNN journalists being arrested on live television, it gives me goosebumps,” she said of events she has witnessed in the United States this year. “The two countries I call home are looking very very similar, which to me is a shock.”
However, despite the gloom, Diaz says she feels hopeful both about the chances of her film being seen inside and outside of the Philippines as well as the chances that Maria Ressa’s conviction may eventually be overturned.
“I think some of Maria’s optimism has rubbed off on me. There’s nowhere to go if you’re not” hopeful, Diaz said. “But given the lockdown, given there is no one to harness all the grief and anger, I am worried for the country.
“Someone has to harness that. Some leader. And there is no one.”
“A Thousand Cuts” is currently available for streaming.