With Thunderous Applause – A Thousand Cuts

Fikri Jermadi connects the dots seen in Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary.

‘A Thousand Cuts’ unsheaths with Maria Ressa, a founder of Philippines-based online news website Rappler, as she directs their operations covering the State of the Nation address in 2018. Delivered by Rodrigo Duterte, one thing stood out for me as we see the live reactions to the president’s harsh words condemning the press in their coverage of him.

That is how Duterte’s face, shown on the big screen in Rappler’s office, resembles that of Big Brother as seen in the film ‘1984’. Though we are in the 21st century, this is not entirely inappropriate, given how Duterte’s controversial rule (more on this later) carries a similar authoritarian overtone that could be seen in Michael Radford’s film.

In opposition to the film’s Big Bad is Maria Ressa. She is a leading light of journalism not just in the Philippines but also in the region (having run CNN’s Jakarta bureau for a decade). She is the protagonist of ‘A Thousand Cuts’ whose journey is the film’s primary plotline. Her courage in standing up to the whims of Duterte’s regime has led to international renown, as she is named as one of Time’s Person of the Year in 2018.

What is she pushing back against? Duterte’s presidency has taken a hands-on approach to enacting their so-called war on drugs. Though viewers of an American persuasion may be familiar with this, the Filipino version takes it a step further, encouraging extrajudicial killings as an effective way of cleaning up their streets. Its efficacy is still being debated, but what is far more certain is that it has left the very same streets bloodied in a literal sense.

Coverage of these events have been intense since Duterte’s rise to power in 2016, but while he can do little with international outlets, the likes of Rappler and Ressa is a lot closer to home. This leads to her being harassed by the authorities at every other turn, exemplified by her immediate arrest after having returned from a trip overseas. Duterte has also offered up ‘evidence’ of a plot to overturn the government, listing Rappler and Ressa as central to this plan.

Having said that, she is not the only one holding fort at the company. We also see things from the presentive of Pia Ranada, a reporter on the presidential palace beat (think White House press corps), who was directly banned by Duterte himself from entering the premises (as Donald Trump did in barring the likes of BBC, CNN and the Guardian).

In one scene, she attempts to hold Duterte accountable with a critical line of questioning, which he swats away with his water-muddying bluster. As he denounces Rappler and their reporting, what becomes obvious is how the rest of the journalists there did not stand up for her or even with her. Though their subjugation to his authority is understandable (reporters need access, as Pia herself points out), it remains a blood-boiling moment that her own bravery is not backed up by her peers.

Another Rappler reporter, Patricia Evangelista, illustrates the cost of Duterte’s war on drugs, with an evocative and heart-wrenching retelling of her covering the events; one story made me tear up at the personal consequences of anyone fancying themselves a bit of blood in the name of ‘justice’. It makes me wonder about the mental health status and support Rappler reporters have. Many organisations covering human rights abuses mandates lengthy vacations for their frontliners, and I wonder whether the likes of Patricia and Pia has that same option.

‘A Thousand Cuts’ also follow the story of a number of non-Rappler personalities, like political hopefuls Samira Gutoc, Mocha Uson and Ronald ‘Bato’ Dela Rosa (with the latter two closely aligned to Duterte). They catch the eye in their own ways, with Mocha walking a fine line between her entertainment career and political activities. Bato, however, has a strange confidence and charisma about him that makes it easy to understand why he is well-liked in certain circles, with a terrible rendition of a John Legend song going down particularly well.

This applies to Duterte himself. Going beyond his penchant for violence and silencing media outlets (the television station ABS-CBN, where Ressa has previously led the news division, is also at loggerheads with the administration), he is also a fan of various acts of misogyny. Though the positive reception to these is galling, with his target audience there is a brusque everyman quality they can relate to. “Duterte offers not just change,” says Patricia, ruefully. “He offers revenge.”

With such antagonism in mind, it does feel weird watching earlier footage of Ressa and Duterte being cordial with one another. Perhaps my Malaysian biases need some checking here (I am reminded of Najib Tun Razak, afraid of a few questions, walking out of an Al-Jazeera interview), but it feels strange all the same to see these two personalities, now bitter enemies on opposite ends of the political and human rights spectrum, being professional in a friendly manner.

On that note, it’s worth pointing out that while the focus is on the Philippines, viewers from all over the world will draw correlations with how the political landscape in places like the United States and Brazil (for instance) have turned out. The same goes to the home front (witness the Malaysian authorities’ own attempt at enacting the chill factor by ‘questioning’ the likes of Anna Har and Fahmi Reza), as governments are keen to ensure everyone toe the Stepford line.

What shines through ‘A Thousand Cuts’ is Ressa’s indomitable spirit through all these figurative and literal trials and tribulations. That’s not to say that it is free of any cost. She herself may project an endearing happy-go-lucky fearlessness, but the behind-the-scenes moments with her family strongly suggest that they fear for her safety; you certainly would if your sister has been publicly subjected to threats of rape and deaths on an hourly basis.

All of this is led by Ramona S. Diaz. Though the film features archive footage from a few years ago, the aesthetics between those and the ones shot for this film is fairly uniform. Having been conditioned by ‘the past’ often portrayed in lower resolution, bad lighting and shaky camera, the consistency I find here is pleasing, and testament both to the skills of the filmmakers as well as the quality of Rappler’s reporting (as they provide a fair amount of the archive footage here).

On that note, the film does run the risk of being a Rappler exclusive for a Maria Ressa special. Yet such access to a strong figure at this crucial juncture in their journey is the stuff documentarians dream of. ‘A Thousand Cuts’ is the reality Ressa and her peers live through on a regular basis, as they sought to hold accountable a right-wing authoritarian fantasy come to life. In being the shining light of independent journalism in the Philippines, they have similarly lit the path for those who wish to walk their way.

Maria will be taking part in a panel discussion looking at press freedom in Southeast Asia on Friday 8th October 2021 at 4.00 PM, along with Steven Gan (Malaysiakini) and Arif Zulkifli (Tempo).

The film is being screened until Saturday 9th October 2021. Click here to register for the event and watch the film for free.

Featured image credit: Good Free Photos

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