Journalist Maria Ressa, convicted of libel in the Philippines, takes on Duterte in new documentary

"[Ressa] believes justice will win the day," filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz, who fears she is now a target, tells Salon

Published June 21, 2020 11:00AM (EDT)

Maria Ressa in "A Thousand Cuts" (PBS)
Maria Ressa in "A Thousand Cuts" (PBS)

Maria Ressa, the cofounder of Rappler, an independent news website in the Philippines, was convicted for "cyber libel" on June 15. She faces six years in prison. (She is currently out on bail and can take her case to the Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court.) Her "crimes" have been described as politically motivated as Ressa has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte. The case has attracted international attention and signals a threat to freedom of the press in the Philippines and elsewhere.

"A Thousand Cuts," director Ramona S. Diaz's compassionate documentary, which recently screened at AFI Docs, and is available in virtual cinemas, profiles Ressa — who was a Time Magazine "Person of the Year," — as her case unfolds. It shows how a tweet she sent correcting Duterte offended him and prompted an attack on the free press. And how she was arrested twice — a retaliation and an intimidation tactic by Duterte — for critical reporting.  

Diaz chronicles Ressa's life and work, providing an inspirational portrait of a woman unafraid to speak truth to power, regardless of the cost. The filmmaker spoke to Salon about Ressa, freedom of the press, and her timely documentary.

How did you conceive of this film and get access to Maria Ressa, Rodrigo Duterte, and even Amal Clooney, who shows up to support Ressa?

I started thinking about it when Duterte became president in 2016. I was on the ground in the Philippines in late 2017 and that's when it really started. I wanted to make a film on the drug war and Duterte. I saw these horrifying photos from the drug wars and could not turn away. I couldn't get this story out of my head. But many filmmakers were shooting this drug war story. Maria was really the loudest voice speaking out against impunity and connecting misinformation and the drug war. That fascinated me. We were introduced by a consultant to the film and my idea was to make a film more an ensemble, but as Maria gave us more access, she emerged. Why did she give us so much access? She needed to document it, and Rappler couldn't document what was happening to them.  

Ressa is a dynamo, but also a canary in a coal mine. What happened to her sets an uneasy precedent to liberties and freedom of the press being stripped away by macho, populist, sexist presidents who don't want to answer to folks who speak truth to power. These are men who generate anger, fear, and hate. What are your thoughts on this?

The guilty verdict already has set a precedent. The political realities in the country are alarming. They are under a strict lockdown, and it's been 12 weeks, so no one can march. Duterte's response to pandemic is a police/military response — if you are outside, we will kill you —  which is like his drug war position. Everyone is afraid. He shut down the biggest media outlet, and that's like Trump shutting down CNN or ABC. It's a clear pattern of consolidating power. And to do that, you have to shut down the press. Maria has become a global symbol. They use armies in social media to demonize and troll her because it's easier to do that against one person. It's midnight in the Philippines.

"A Thousand Cuts" asks "What do we do when the President lies?" Ressa's tweet offended Duterte and he retroactively applies a law to punish her. She is banned and denied access. This, of course, is abuse of power. And Duterte is chummy with Trump. What can be done? 

Maria is an American citizen, she holds dual citizenship, and no one is speaking out. That's the point — leaders need to speak out. But then there is a tipping point, like Black Lives Matter here. But there is a pandemic. It's organizing and planning and not letting the story die. And that's so tough with so much happening now. What do you pay attention to? It's all so dire. So people shut down, which is scary. As each day passes, this becomes more relevant. It shouldn't be, but here we are — even with a pandemic.

Your film addresses the informational ecosystem and disinformation networks. The goal is to make people doubt the facts. How can truth and justice win out? We are feeling defeated and demoralized this week. 

I saw the writing on the wall. This is one of eight cases, and this is the outlier case. It should have been thrown out. She was found guilty, and the writer was found guilty, but not Rappler, which is why I feel it is politically motivated. People knee-jerk share based on headlines. They should stop and pause and question sources. Does the headline have anything to do with the article? Is it completely clickbait? Who's writing this? There is still the legacy press that I feel I can believe in, but I can think critically. Some people think, "I know better," but I've been a victim. It's insidious and scary. You think, How can I be victimized when I feel above it? I think everyone is a victim.

Thinking about free speech, what are your observations about the haters who call for Ressa's rape and beheading, or that Duterte talks about his penis in his speeches and makes disparaging remarks towards women?

That's always my question. With the cyber law, anything said in the past 12 years can be used against you. If you're applying this law to everyone, does that apply to the President as well? It should! But there seems to be some kind of immunity [for Duterte]. He stacked the Supreme Court with his people. I don't think this is a question that will be asked, but people are wondering, "If you are getting me for dissent, what are you liable for?" I don't know. 

Where do you think Ressa gets her strength? She's collected and rational when arrested, and she tries to motivate her staff and sister, and give them hope and love when things look bleak. What do you admire about her character other than her courage and bravery?

I was drawn to her because she's very complex. She sees the big picture and there is something Pollyanna-ish about her. She believes in the courts and the judge who seemed fair during the hearings. She believes justice will win the day. She truly believes in the mission of journalism to shine a light. What are you hiding? Why are you coming after me? Why are you afraid? 

When you film someone, they can't keep up appearances for too long, but it was real, her belief in our better angels. The personal price is very high, but it amazed me during the press conference was that there was such clarity when she started speaking. When they read the verdict, she was writing notes, like it wasn't about her. Always a journalist. That's so quintessentially Maria.

The film features a midterm election (that Rappler covers) where Ronald "Bato" Marapon dela Rosa, a retired police general is looking to secure a Senatorial seat. His dedication to Duterte is chilling. Bato is a fascinating character. He's a "yes man" for Duterte, claiming he would kill for the president. He also sings karaoke. He deserves his own film. What observations do you have about him and including his story?

I find him fascinating too. He does deserve his own film. He projects a mixture of menace as he was the head of the National Police when the drug war began, but he's an entertainment jester who jokes with the crowd. His punchline is, "If you don't clap, you're a drug dealer." This guy can come after me even if he's dancing and singing. There's a lot of entertainment in Philippine politics. It's always been that way.

Duterte's War on Drugs targets the poor, emphasizing the poverty and inequality in Manila. 

Is there a follow the money story here? 

There is this other Senator, [Antonio] Trillanes, who brought up these questions: What is this drug war all about? Is it's about the poor, or fear? If you follow the money, perhaps Duterte's son is the biggest drug dealer, and he wants to kill the competition? Trillanes has been charged with sedition.

Do you fear being targeted given that you made this film, which criticizes Duterte? 

I believe so. It's lockdown in the Philippines, so they aren't letting anyone into the country without a Philippine passport. I've been told that maybe I'll be a target. I had to be careful while following Maria as well. We had to think twice because if she was under attack, we were too. But as a documentary filmmaker, what am I doing this for? You have to overcome that fear.

"A Thousand Cuts" is currently available in virtual cinemas.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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A Thousand Cuts Interview Journalism Maria Ressa Movies Philippines Rodrigo Duterte