'A Thousand Cuts': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A warning letter to nations who embrace thuggish leaders.

Ramona S. Diaz follows the rise of strongman Rodrigo Duterte and the journalists who brave his intimidation.

An immersive political documentary that might be useful as a glass half-full/half-empty personality test, Ramona S. Diaz's A Thousand Cuts presents this challenge: Having spent two hours watching a democracy wither under a thuggish, law-ignoring president, does a viewer walk out growling, "Well, we're all screwed," or is she uplifted by the example of Maria Ressa, a journalist who cheerfully does her damned job no matter how her government harasses her? Well, it's of course possible to hold both feelings simultaneously. But psychological tool or not, the film is an essential character-driven document of a moment in the history of a country facing some challenges that are disturbingly familiar and others, thank goodness, that Americans will find very foreign.

Ressa is a Manila-born journalist who spent much of her youth in the U.S. before returning there, serving as CNN's Manila bureau chief. As she describes it, as a young adult she felt driven to choose which country would be hers; unlike her sister, who chose the States, Ressa cast her lot with the Philippines, believing in the 1986 People Power Revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos and restored democracy to the country.

Nearly a decade ago, she co-founded the online news site Rappler, hiring a staff full of twentyish digital natives; it would appear that, as the youngsters helped their bosses understand the new-media universe, the veteran reporters bolstered the newbies' commitment to seeking and exposing the truth.

Though set largely amid campaigning for the country's 2019 midterm elections, in which Duterte worked to stuff the government with the most fervent supporters of his brutal drug war — even candidates like racy pop dancer/singer Mocha Uson, who had no governmental experience before embracing Duterte and spreading his misinformation to a legion of online followers — the doc also offers telling footage shot around the Duterte's own election. We see an interview between him and Ressa, in which the latter is unfailingly polite while he says shocking things about his hunt for those he claims are drug dealers. "I'm not building a case beyond reasonable doubt," he explains, but instead relying on his gut, which is perfect: "Would you believe it? I'm at 0.0 margin of error!"

Sound like anyone you know? A Thousand Cuts sprinkles its running time with clips of speeches in which Duterte looks almost exactly like a Southeast Asian remake of Donald Trump, albeit one with more convincing hair and virility. He boasts about his penis; he dreams up vast conspiracies against him and stocks his government with relatives. He spreads obvious lies and calls the press the enemy of the people.

Duterte singles out Rappler and Ressa specifically, and we watch as his government arrests her several times, filing trumped-up cases alleging libel and other crimes. If there's something inspirationally un-dramatic about her response to this persecution, the film has other characters whose bravery takes a more visible toll. We spend time with young Rappler reporters including Pia Ranada, for example, who must petition the Supreme Court when Duterte bans her from covering official events.

Diaz gets surprising access on the other side as well, hitting the Senate campaign trail with Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa, the police chief and Corrections Bureau director who is proud to say, and repeat, how happy he'd be to kill for Duterte. We spend more time observing his personality than digging into those murders: Though interviewees make frequent reference to the government's extrajudicial killings, in which thousands have been slain on the street for suspected drug activity, the doc assumes a basic familiarity with the horrors of the drug war.

That rampant bloodshed, which many observe has become a de facto war on the poor, is the most obvious way in which the Philippines' rapid descent outstrips our own. But Ressa cautions those who'd be sanguine about the rule of law's survival in America. Claiming that, for instance, Cambridge Analytica beta-tested its data theft and manipulation in her country before teaming with right-wingers in ours, she argues that what happens in this Asian archipelago is more predictive of American history than you might like to think.

Production company: CineDiaz
Director-screenwriter: Ramona S. Diaz
Producers: Ramona S. Diaz, Leah Marino, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn
Directors of photography: Gabriel Goodenough, Jeffrey Johnson
Editor: Leah Marino
Composer: Sam Lipman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

In English, Tagalog
110 minutes