Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 06, 2020 12:58 pm 
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"A warning letter to nations that embrace thuggish leaders"

(So wrote John DeFore of A Thousand Cuts in his Hollywood Reporter review.)

This is a story that makes you feel full of admiration - and sick.

After a youth spent in the US, Maria Ressa returned home to the Philippines by choice. A small, compact, tough woman, she is fiercely intelligent, effortlessly articulate, and calm and unfailingly good humored in the face of adversity. This is her story, the equally nauseating and inspiring story of journalistic freedoms progressively trampled in a vanishing democracy.

Maria Ressa is the Philippines' leading independent journalist, one of the four "Guardians" (who included Jamal Khashoggi) named as Time's Person of the Year for 2018. She was inspired by the 1986 People Power Revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos and brought democracy back to the country. She eventually became CNN's Manila bureau chief in 1995. Then in 2012 she cofounded and became the head of Rappeler, the country's leading online news site. In the past five years, with the unexpected rise of Manila mayor Rodrigo Duterte to the office of president of the Philippines, things have gone back again to the bad old days with the election of a violent political outsider whose "war on drugs" has meant violent repression and murder. Within hours of his taking office the dead bodies of poor addicts piling up in the streets of Manila Within hours of taking office while rich dealers go free. As this film begins, Maria Ressa remains more dedicated than ever. This documentary is a picture of strong journalism in a world where the leader hates the free press and does all he can to block its function. This is a "war on drugs" that simply means killing drug users. It's insane, yet horribly real.

In an attempt to suppress independent reporting, Duterte set loose a powerful disinformation campaign that spread like wildfire throughout social media. This film shows some diagrams about bots and influencing. We see that 26 fake accounts can rapidly influence 3 million real individuals. And this is especially significant because Filipinos are the highest social media users in the world, spending nearly four hours a day online.

In the film, we follow Maria Ressa, who's a model of coolness, calm, and good sense. But everywhere we go we feel ugliness and fear in the air. From the podium at large rallies, Duterte and his chief minions openly admit to killing people and threaten to kill many more. The air alll around them is full of violence, menace, and vulgarity. All that comes out of the mouths of Duterte and his lieutenants is full of misogyny and threats. He jokes about his penis and the odor of the female sex. You thought Trump was bad? Here is how it could get much, much worse. But Maria Ressa is not unaware of the relationship and points out America has a similar leader. She says poorer countries are testing grounds for an undermining of democracy that can be tried later in the first world.

Director Ramona S. Diaz follows key players on both sides of an increasingly dangerous war between the press and government. Maria Ressa and her staff continue to make the lawless regime accountable. On the other side, influencers such as pop-star-turned-government-secretary Mocha Uson start social media movements and the thuggish, Mussolini-like General Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa spearheads a public execution campaign against addicts. Obviously everybody doesn't believe this grotesque nonsense, but the opposition is afraid to speak up.

Maria Ressa repeatedly meets with and interviews Duterte, but meanwhile, he and his team accuse Rappeler of being the agent of a foreign government and taking money to accuse enemies. Rappeler's rising star Pia Ranada is also individually targeted by Duterte for his disinformation campaign. Maria Ressa is much in demand overseas, with invitations to speak in New York, Glasgow, Geneva. She is arrested, and gets out on bail. Later after a foreign trip, she is arrested a second time within five weeks when she arrives back in the country. She is accused of a media libel violation involving a law that is being invoked retroactively.

The film alternately, breathtakingly, follows the key players, Rappeler's leadng female journalists Duterte and General Della Rosa, Duterte's daughter Sara, now a mayor, and pop-star blogger "Mocha" Uson, who serves in the administration and has been nicknamed the "Queen of Fake News."

Maria Ressa says in a public address that what we are witnessing is a "death by a thousand cuts" of democracy. She returns after another foreign trip where she has been encouraged in a public speech by George Clooney. Throughout the period covered in this film Maria Ressa continuies to be increasingly known and admired overseas as a champion of free speech and model of journalistic integrity.

There is a national election and we see opposition candidates speak out. They say they do not feel safer, and that the drug situation has only grown worse since the "war on drugs." But as they speak, "Bato" stands at a bigger podium than theirs in the hall and yells at them. A woman moderator tries ineffectually to calm "Bato" down. But he is a mad dog given free reign. Some of the public meetings have a Hitlerian atmosphere. In the election, the opposition candidates don't do well enough to gain power in the senate. Duterte's power grows stronger. Maria Ressa points out the "checks and balances are "bending to the man" (Duterte).

In 2020, with the pandemic on and Maria Ressa wearing a mask, she is convicted of cyber libel charges, with a sentence of six years. We have seen her declare to an intimate friend earlier that she is ready for the fate of prolonged detention suffered by journalists in Egypt and other countries. As the film ends, she is appealing the conviction. She has seven more cases pending.

This is a sickening, disturbing, and essential film. As Jessica Kiang wrote in her Variety review, it feels "more like a political thriller" than an "off-the-cuff investigation" of "embattled journalism." And it is impeccably made: for what you might expect to be rough-looking news footage, DPs Gabriel Goodenough and Jeffrey Johnson instead provide astonishing, crystal-clear images throughout this film. As for Diaz, Kiang comments she herself has an "intelligence coupled to intense compassion" that strongly suggests she and Ressa are "kindred spirits."

A Thousand Cuts, 110 mins., debuted at Sundance in Jan. 2020. It was to have been shown at a dozen other festivals, including SXSW at Austin and the Maryland Film Festival (Diaz lives in northwest Baltimore), but sadly, all were cancelled due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. PBS Distribution and FRONTLINE will distribute the film for online pay-for-viewing from August 7, 2020. Metacritic score: 80%.

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