“Death by a thousand cuts,” is how Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa describes the slow decline of democracy through continuous attacks onto constitutional freedoms.
Just a few of these “cuts” that Ressa navigates in Ramona S. Diaz’s 2020 documentary, A Thousand Cuts, include the jeopardization of press freedom, a culture of impunity, and the influence of social media algorithms in spreading hate speech.
In her film, Diaz tells the story of independent journalism in the Philippines and how it persists in the face of these cuts.
About the film
A Thousand Cuts follows the struggles of Ressa and her news outlet Rappler, as they fight lawsuits and attacks from an increasingly dictatorial government led by President Rodrigo Duterte. The film features the experiences of Rappler journalists covering the war on drugs and several candidates running in the 2019 Phillipine Senate election.
Duterte’s crackdown on the drug epidemic through extrajudicial killings of drug users has been met with controversy both in and outside of the country. When she saw the “dark and disturbing” pictures of the war on drugs in her home country, Diaz knew she wanted to make a film about it.
During an initial research trip, she realized that there were already many journalists and filmmakers covering the drug war, and contemplated what angle to take for her film.
“So, I looked around and there was Maria Ressa. I was very interested in what she had to say in terms of disinformation, impunity and social media,” said Diaz.
Casting characters and developing relationships
Ressa, who was already doing extensive coverage of the drug war through Rappler, is a prominent figure in the international journalism community for her persistence and courage covering a hostile government.
Diaz says that Ressa was an obvious character choice for her documentary because of how articulately she spoke about the implications of social media disinformation in the Philippines.
“She’s good on camera,” said Diaz. “It is a visual medium. You have to respect the form, so in a way, you have to cast your film.”
Ressa has spoken regularly about the importance of press freedom and the weaponization of social media by the government and bad actors. In June 2020, she was arrested and convicted of cyber libel charges by the Filipino government.
Diaz closely follows other larger-than-life characters in her film — including two pro-Duterte political figures — in order to provide a nuanced look at the political landscape of the Philippines.
The film dives into the lives and motivations of dancer and blogger Mocha Uson and former Phillippine National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, accompanying them through packed campaign rallies and intimate conversations in the car.
She says she was fascinated by Bato and Mocha, and their role in the “machinery” of the state as ardent followers of Duterte.
From Mocha’s story about her father’s assassination, to Bato’s ruminations on his religion, Diaz says she approaches everyone with curiosity and an open mind, seeking to explore her characters’ belief systems “without judgement.”
By humanizing characters on the conflicting side and providing their accounts into what’s happening in the Philippines, Diaz juxtaposes the belief systems of Duterte supporters with the struggles and goals of Rappler journalists and opposition politicians.
Diaz says she wants to look at her subjects’ beliefs “on [their] own terms” because she believes that, at the end of the day, history is made up of the interaction of personal decisions — decisions she hopes to understand the motivations of.
Beginnings in filmmaking
Diaz became interested in documentary filmmaking after returning to the Philippines in 1989, a few years after the People Power Revolution, having watched the country reinvent itself. “It was very exciting,” said Diaz. “There were a lot of stories unfolding on the ground that I thought were really interesting.”
Known for her 2003 documentary on the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda, Diaz says she is drawn to compelling situations and characters in her filmmaking pursuits. The Philippine drug war was one of them.
“I couldn’t really turn my gaze, avert my eyes,” said Diaz. “The way I work is that I go there, I look at everything that’s happening on the ground and then make a decision.”
She describes her style of filmmaking as “very immersive,” staying with her subjects for long periods of time and watching their lives unfold. A lot of filmmaking, for Diaz, involves intuition and trusting your gut, but also putting yourself in a position where you are there when things happen.
“I think in order to find the real story, or the story you were meant to make, you can’t parachute in,” said Diaz. “You have to stay and figure it out and talk to people and really understand what the situation is on the ground.”
Diaz, who was born and raised in the Philippines and later immigrated to the U.S believes that her immigrant experience influences how she tells her stories. For Diaz, the form of cinema itself resists objectivity because the director guides the audiences’ gaze.
“At the end of the day, I’m mediating an experience for everyone,” said Diaz. “We direct your gaze by what we choose to put in the film, how we choose to frame the shots, how we choose to frame the shots. My personal experience will always influence how I tell stories, because they are from a very particular lens.”
Visually, A Thousand Cuts mirrors the intimacy of the subject matter with many close-up scenes. Diaz says that she loves filming close because a relationship forms between the camera and the subject that gives a very “honest” quality to the scene.
“Something changes when you break the boundary of private space, especially in the car,” said Diaz. “I want it to be both intimate and grand. Elections in the Philippines are always full of spectacle, and I wanted to show that in sort of this grand way but also really go into their lives.”
Developing relationships with a variety of subjects and gaining access to their lives is all about “winning trust” through transparency and openness, according to Diaz.
“What I’m doing isn’t reality television. It’s not about the ‘gotcha’ moment, it’s really about a more nuanced story, and trying to understand their motivations and what moves them,” said Diaz.
Diaz remembers the difficulty of filming a pivotal scene where Ressa is arrested by the Department of Justice in February 2019. Battling with other reporters for space, as well as documenting the situation as it unfolded in a way that would go beyond the superficiality of breaking news, were just some of the challenges she faced during the process.
“How do you cover breaking news without making it seem like news? Because it has to transcend in order for the film to be timeless, it can’t just be about breaking news,” said Diaz.
The logistics of filming across the Philippines required “really good coordination” from field producers J.A Saltarin and Maricris Calilung to pull off, according to Diaz. She says that with the way she films, the crew didn’t know exactly what they would be doing day-to-day, so getting on planes and flying on short notice was another tough part.
Working on A Thousand Cuts also came with its own risks. “You’re covering a woman who has to wear a bulletproof vest, right,” said Diaz. “Once you do that, there’s obviously a risk to yourself and to your crew.”
She says that she was very honest about the situation with her crew, which was made up of local and U.S members, and understood that risk tolerance was something very personal.
“I understood that I leave, because I live in the States,” said Diaz. “They stay, the local crew, and they needed to make a decision for themselves.”
She says that at the end of the day, A Thousand Cuts was a story she would’ve regretted forever if she didn’t cover it.
A Cautionary Tale
While the weaponization of social media to spread disinformation and the infringement of freedom of the press are the major topics explored in the film within the context of the Philippines, Diaz believes that the film will resonate worldwide.
“There are cautionary tales there of how social media is manipulating behaviour, especially if you don’t know it, especially if you think you’re immune to it,” said Diaz “We are all the products being sold on social media, our behaviour, our data.”
Diaz says that A Thousand Cuts is a story of independent journalism’s importance in a thriving democracy, and how easily it is to undermine its power.
“The fourth estate is not the fourth estate for nothing, right?” said Diaz. “It’s the job of independent media to tell the stories that those in power don’t want you to tell.”
A Thousand Cuts was recently featured in the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF).
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