A Thousand Cuts doesn’t grapple with such global issues as much as it name checks them.”

By Thomas Puhr.

A sobering reminder that 21st-century demagoguery is not limited to the West, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts (2020) focuses on two diametrically-opposed figures: Rodrigo Duterte, current President of the Philippines, and Maria Ressa, co-founder of Rapplerand one of Duterte’s staunchest critics (she’s now in prison for libel). Despite her subject’s obvious prescience and some harrowing interview footage, the director ultimately foregoes critical depth in favor of easy-to-swallow, pseudo-inspirational exaltations of Ressa.

Early sequences charting Duterte’s evolution from “wild card” outsider mayor to populist national leader inspire incredulity and horror. In an interview with Ressa before his election, he casually admits to having killed at least three people. “This mother fucking government is not for the people,” he announces to a cheering crowd at a 2015 campaign speech that gives Trump’s diatribes a run for their money. His articulation of the authorities’ war on drugs (i.e. war on the impoverished) is astonishingly blunt: “Do not do drugs, because I will kill you.” Other figures in his orbit include Mocha Uson, a singer turned Duterte devotee (he awarded her a government post), and Ronald dela Rosa, the President’s right-hand man (and current Senator), whose stance on the war on drugs boils down to: “Everyone should be annihilated.”

That social media played a significant role in Duterte’s rise to power is uncontested by his supporters and most outspoken critics alike. Mocha Uson approvingly calls him “The social media President,” while Ressa describes the internet recipe which helped catapult him to prominence as “Lies laced with anger and hate.” The correlation between incendiary social media trends and distrust in mainstream journalism should come as no surprise to Western audiences. Ressa, for example, cites an “ALL journalists are corrupt” trend picked up by roughly three million Twitter users which originated from a network of 26 fake accounts. This explication of what she calls “Our information ecosystem” packs an undeniable punch.

“The director ultimately foregoes critical depth in favor of easy-to-swallow, pseudo-inspirational exaltations of Ressa.”

Duterte himself has invoked that go-to label, “fake news,” when referring to sources which have criticized his office. Rappler’s investigation into his family’s mysterious accumulation of wealth (some theorize he stole from public funds), among other published pieces, led to him banning its journalists from his speeches and having Ressa repeatedly arrested. Unfounded claims that a media-led conspiracy is scheming to oust him, when skeptically questioned, are answered with a defiant, “It’s from the President, you have to believe it.” His “evidence” of said plot, a diagram (a single piece of paper, really) issued from his office, would be laughable if it wasn’t such a dangerous attack on free press.

Diaz’s decision to juxtapose these investigative, fairly-objective scenes with a personal portrait of Ressa has its benefits, but her myopic hero-worship of the journalist can become grating. Though engaging, footage of Ressa and her sister discussing the possibility of the former being arrested (yet again) as they pack suitcases and put on make-up doesn’t offer any real insight beyond a superficial “She’s only human, too” kind of way. Brief scenes of her talking to George and Amal Clooney, interviewing with Democracy Now!, and attending an event for Time’s people of the year gala feel like padding at best and pandering at worst. We get the sense that Ressa, always so erudite and focused, would much rather talk about issues and facts than herself; Diaz, on the other hand, opts for unfettered praise of her subject.

Meanwhile, many big questions linger. Surely there are sociocultural and historical factors at play here, beyond what Ressa eloquently calls a “weaponized internet.” How, for instance, did someone like Duterte gain political traction in the late ‘80s to begin with? What are his and dela Rosa’s backgrounds prior to the 2010s? How does the current office fit into both the Philippines’ political history and the broader context of 21st-century globalization? By no means do I expect a 98-minute documentary to answer all of these questions, but it should at least acknowledge that the situation is far more complex and deep-rooted than its us vs. them triumphalism implies.

The film’s title comes from Ressa’s assertion that Duterte’s goal is to provoke “Death by a thousand cuts to our democracy,” an apt metaphor for how violent political regimes systematically, subtly chip away at people’s fundamental rights. Diaz’s account identifies maybe two or three of these multitudinous cuts and only glancingly analyzes them. “What happens in America happens to the rest of the world,” Ressa tells a rapt Washington audience. Maybe that’s part of the problem; after all, Britain, America, and many other countries are suffering similar wounds. Given Diaz’s access to prominent figures on both ends of the spectrum (Ressa, a number of Rappler journalists, Uson, dela Rosa), it’s disappointing how A Thousand Cuts doesn’t grapple with such global issues as much as it name checks them.   

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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