It almost feels like a cheat, or an unfair advantage, to have such unfettered access to a documentary subject like Maria Ressa. Not to downplay the impressive craftsmanship that makes director Ramona S. Diaz’s pacy, engrossing, galvanizing film “A Thousand Cuts” feel more like a political thriller than an off-the-cuff investigation into embattled journalism in the Philippines, but Ressa’s seemingly boundless energy, good humor and intelligence make her basically a power plant for the manufacture of inspiration in embattled times. You may go in knowing little about her — perhaps just that she was one of the four “Guardians” (Jamal Khashoggi being another) to be named Time’s Person of the Year for 2018. But you come out more profoundly aware than ever of the gathering darkness of our current geopolitical moment, and more fervently grateful that there are torchbearers like Maria Ressa to lead us to the light.
Ressa, along with three other female journalists, runs Rappler, an online news portal she co-founded in 2012 that soon became the staunchest debunker of the misinformation and “fake news” that helped Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte gain power in 2016. In the years since, Rappler and its journalists (many of whom are women, which takes on special significance when you consider the regime’s gleeful, violent misogynistic rhetoric) have become specific targets of Duterte’s ire, even as Ressa has become increasingly celebrated overseas as a champion of free speech and a shining example of journalistic integrity. The intimidation they face is no hollow threat: as Diaz’s film makes clear, Duterte’s officials — here exemplified by Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, his bald, baby-faced Mussolini-like lieutenant, to whom Diaz also gains surprisingly frank access — have been responsible for literally thousands of extrajudicial murders under the flimsy guise of the “war on drugs.”
For a category of filmmaking where the craft is often utilitarian at best, the footage is unusually well-shot by DPs Gabriel Goodenough and Jeffrey Johnson. Under Sam Lipman’s lightly intriguing, noodling score, nighttime cityscapes give Manila the seedy buzz of a dystopian sci-fi, and even the talking-head interviews have a certain nervy, noirish sheen. Diaz assembles her wealth of material cleverly, skipping between Ressa and dela Rosa; between eye-opening interviews with Rappler journalists and archive footage of Duterte individually targeting rising Rappler star Pia Ranada; between a female opposition politician standing for election and Duterte’s chief women lieutenants — his daughter Sara, now a mayor, and pop-star blogger “Mocha” Uson, who serves in his administration and has been nicknamed the “Queen of Fake News.”
Despite all of these supporting characters, and the spreading shadow of Duterte himself, whose oddly avuncular energy is so wildly at odds with the violence, corruption and hatefulness he preaches, it is Ressa who emerges most vividly from “A Thousand Cuts.” Petite, bespectacled, with close-cropped black hair and a very funny reaction when a friend tries to make her wear a slinky evening dress to a fancy event, Ressa exudes a down-to-earth best-friendliness, if your bestie had a genius IQ and was on first-name terms with Amal and George (indeed Amal Clooney is part of Ressa’s defense counsel). Her greatest asset may just be her approachability, her endearing habit of swatting away compliments and making faces when someone suggests she’s extraordinary. She may be packing to go receive an award from some august international body, but she gets annoyed with herself when she closes up her suitcase only to find a shampoo bottle she forgot to put inside it. This modesty and relatability makes her somewhat un-hagiographable, not that Diaz would have been likely to go the fawning route: Her previous Sundance-awarded film “Motherland,” set in an overworked Filipino maternity ward, revealed an intelligence coupled to intense compassion that suggests she and Ressa are kindred spirits.
“A Thousand Cuts” is highly relevant outside the Philippines too, clearly outlining the similarities between the assault on press freedoms there and the deepening divisions between the political right wing and the Fourth Estate in the U.S. Indeed Ressa (born in the Philippines, raised in New Jersey) unsentimentally asserts that the Cambridge Analytica-led manipulation of public opinion via social media around Duterte’s election, essentially used the Philippines, which has the highest per capita internet usage rates in world, as a “dry run” to test out its mechanisms for undue electoral influence in the States.
That cautionary parallel is a reminder that, as global community, we have already lost so much, and the film ends on a note of ostensible defeat. Despite that, after watching “A Thousand Cuts,” it feels almost impossible to believe that with people like Ressa on our side, the values of free speech, lawfulness and justice will not somehow triumph in the end.