Sharp and Exceptionally Engaging, ‘A Thousand Cuts’ Is a Vital Documentary for Understanding the Age of Misinformation
Nowhere is the worldwide erosion of democracy, fueled by social media disinformation campaigns, more starkly evident than in the authoritarian regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Journalist Maria Ressa places the tools of the free press—and her freedom—on the line in defense of truth and democracy.
Director: Ramona S. Diaz
Language: English, Tagalog
Runtime: 100 minutes
Directed by Ramona S. Diaz, the greatest strengths of A Thousand Cuts come with how it is able to get even those completely unaware about Philippines politics up to speed, and with how it is able to so incisively map out why there are such sharp political divides in countries with populist governments. The greatest weakness of the documentary is with how – despite all its rage, urgency, and calls for justice – it probably will not sway anyone who isn’t already convinced of its message.
A Thousand Cuts centres around the heated back-and-forth between online news network Rappler and President Duterte’s administration and supporters. The documentary’s main attention is with Maria Ressa, Rappler’s founder and award-winning journalist, and her battle with a government determined to muzzle the free press.
Much of the emotions packed into the documentary comes from Ressa’s off-the-cuff reactions to the attacks targeted at her by both the president and his ardent supporters. Despite arrests, false accusations, and horrid threats of sexual violence, her calm demeanour never fades, never giving way to fear. The documentary does an excellent job at translating her strength and the fortitude shown is incredibly inspirational. However, A Thousand Cuts does not intend to just be a biography.
Through intense cinematography and a score almost fit for a thriller, the documentary positions itself in the epicentre of a heated duel. Proponents of the free media make their case clear: Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ is flagrantly illegal, and he has leveraged fears and the power of social media to mislead millions of Filipinos with distorted facts – all part of his populist playbook to erode democracy.
Through interviews with Ressa, Rappler’s journalists, and women’s rights advocate Samira Gutoc, the documentary does a phenomenal job in explaining how and why the Philippines elected a populist strongman – as Patricia Evangelista, an investigative reporter for Rappler, so succinctly puts it early in the documentary: “He offers not just change – he offers revenge.”
There are plenty of these zingers and mic-drop moments that will be seared into the viewers’ mind, mainly expressed through the words and behaviour of Duterte himself. It is with its shocks where A Thousand Cuts looks to inform the world not just of the situation in the Philippines, but also as a warning on how extreme income inequalities and misuse of social media will poison democracies throughout the world.
The documentary looks to balance perspectives by following the Senatorial election campaign of Duterte’s right-hand man Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, and the work of controversial entertainer Mocha Uson. The camera’s eye isn’t necessarily unbiased as much as they keenly illuminate the appeal of their methods.
A Thousand Cuts often shares the stage with these figures, allowing the roaring crowds and wide smiles of the people to express first-hand why Bato’s strongman persona is so successful, and how Mocha, a founder of a provocative all-girls musical group, is able to command so much political attention on social media. While interviews with them do reveal that they genuinely believe in their cause, the documentary is firm in its stance – so firm that it becomes hardly objective.
Editing together thousands of hours of footage to form a narrative as cohesive and engaging as A Thousand Cuts is no small feat. However, these are edits that can feel manipulative, especially when its main goal is in establishing an enticing, easily-digestible “Good versus Evil” narrative. With its heart-pumping score, the documentary often directly contrasts Duterte’s vulgar words with Ressa’s composure, the sex appeal of the Mocha Girls with the modesty of women’s rights advocate Gutoc.
It isn’t manipulation that could change perspectives as well. Instead, the documentary could easily come off as deeply condescending to those on the other side of the aisle. In a twisted and perhaps unintended sense, the documentary not only offers a clear prognosis of the enemy but also, by virtue of itself, makes it plain as day why anti-populist, liberal voices often fail to go beyond their bubbles.
The heated battle over press freedom is fuelled by the idea that the fourth estate has to be the voice of the people against the atrocities of the government. Yet, this core issue is often left to the wayside, with the documentary seemingly more interested in following Ressa overseas for her speaking engagements shaking hands with Amal Clooney than illustrating the stakes.
On this beat, while A Thousand Cuts doesn’t outwardly express why Ressa is such a divisive figure in the Philippines and why Duterte’s supporters are so fervent, again, it is with the documentary’s presentation itself where audiences may be able to pick up why.
Ressa’s American accent and dual-citizenship are sharply contrasted with the on-the-ground, Tagalog-fluent speeches of the populists. When asked by a housewife about why the people should care about ailing press freedom when their livelihoods have seemingly improved under Duterte, Ressa invokes the Holocaust and Martin Niemölle’s “First they came..” poem – presented as yet another mic-drop but perhaps only for those who are already on the same page as her.
Ultimately, these qualities of A Thousand Cuts don’t subtract from what is an exceptional documentary. Excellent editing and a thrilling soundtrack make for an ever-engaging and exciting 98 minutes; its abundance of cinematic shots makes it easy to forget that the documentary isn’t a dystopian narrative. If anything, its faults and perspective only add to the overall enriching experience, showcasing exactly why there are deep, untraversable political gulfs throughout the world today.
View the documentary’s trailer below:
So incisively showcasing the fickleness of truth in the age of misinformation, A Thousand Cuts joins this year’s lineup of the Perspectives Film Festival 2020 in tackling its selected theme “Truth”.
The documentary will be available for rental streaming throughout the festival period from 23 October to 1 November. For more details on Perspectives Film Festival 2020, visit its website and follow its Facebook page for the latest updates.
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Image credits: FRONTLINE/PBS