A thousand cuts
While the recent right-wing attacks on the free press here in the United States have rightly sounded alarm bells, in a global context they are just wake-up calls. Sure, Trump, who thinks the "wrong news" of the "Lamestream" media is dangerous, is dangerously youthful, but it is also far from the fact that the Duterte administration, for example, founders and CEOs of the Philippine top online news site Rappler guilty of "cyber-defamation" – a travesty of justice that only took place last June. And the politically orchestrated verdict provides for both a large fine and a possible prison sentence for Maria Ressa, the "person of the year 2018", together with a former colleague.
Although it's not hard to understand why Ressa, a superhumanly persistent journalist (with a standard mode set for unbridled optimism), could get under the skin of a murderous strong man. It is less immediately apparent how Ressa even managed to survive so long in a system determined to condemn dissent to death by "a thousand cuts", as the title of the latest documentary suggests to award-winning director Ramona S. Diaz .
Fortunately, Diaz, a Filipino-American filmmaker, has been a long-time observer of the complicated country and its culture – from Imelda 2004 to Motherland 2017 – so that it can, in fact, shed light on both Ressa and the wider context of her team A Thousand Cuts is not only an intimate journey with Ressa and her heroic Rappler reporters, but is tirelessly fighting to uncover Duterte's corrupt drug war for the war on poor drug addicts that it actually is (even if they themselves are targets of the highly effective disinformation campaign of the Government through social media). Wisely, Diaz also turns to the politically savvy, pro-duther side by serving as government secretary Mocha Uson, a former pop star, and General Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa, a retired police general, spreading a message of intolerance and hatred – online and on the stump – in the most optimistic and human-friendly way. That makes the dark side even darker.
To learn more about how to document the heart of Dutertes Philippines and what her protagonist's recent guilty verdict means for Ressa and the future of Diaz & # 39; filmmaking there, the filmmaker turned a few days before A's virtual release on 7 August to the director a thousand cuts (via PBS Distribution and Frontline).
Filmmakers: I saw Marc Wieses We Hold The Line at this year's virtual CPH: DOX, which asked me if you had to navigate through a German film team during production! How long did the shooting with Maria and Rappler take and what are some of the challenges of filming with a famous, sought-after main character?
Diaz: We started filming Maria to be precise on July 23, 2018, during President Duterte's third speech on the state of the nation. We returned in October and November to continue filming. In the meantime, I had decided to make the mid-term background of the film and set the main photography to start in February and continue until the month of May.
When we started filming Maria in 2018, she had not yet been named "Time Person of the Year", her arrests were still in the future and she was not the popular figure she eventually became. In those early days of 2018, television teams came over to make short plays about Maria, and we just included her in our shooting. We filmed them when we videotaped them. This included the German occupation, and I understand that they filmed more of the drug war than Maria.
Everyone came and went and we stayed. At that time, she wasn't the leading role in the film either. I still imagined an old manesque ensemble consisting of Maria and allies of the President and the opposition leaders. Very similar to short cuts, and the medfly was duterte. That was my bad luck. So in 2018 we filmed equally with the other characters like Duterte allies Mocha Uson and General Bato dela Rosa.
I arrived in Manila on February 12, 2019 to prepare. My crew arrived the next week. The next day I receive a text message from Maria asking me to come to the Rappler headquarters when I'm not busy because she is about to be arrested. Of course I dropped everything and when I realized that I would never make it to Rappler, I decided to go straight to the National Bureau of Investigations (like the FBI of the Philippines).
Because of a blessing from the documentary gods, we actually caught up with the convoy that brought Maria to the NBI, so we just inserted ourselves into the stream. When we got to the NBI, I struggled forward and said I was with Rappler, so they let me into the room where she was being held. And then it was like that, we never left her side. (I hired a local crew a few days before my crew's arrival.)
And since it obviously became the focus of the film and turned away from my original idea, a unit was assigned exclusively to Maria. When everyone else came to film them, we were deeply embedded in them. We were the only ones allowed to film them intimately (gosh, I hate that word, but you know what I mean), traveling with her, meeting her family, etc. We were the first in and the last out.
I film immersively; That's why I never left after posting the latest news. I don't know how to navigate this world. When I first arrived in Manila in late 2017 with this vague idea of making a drug war film, I found that so many people had already made drug war films. I had to pan, so I "discovered" Maria and refined her. Getting access is hard enough, but fighting other film teams? This never results in anything good.
Filmmakers: In addition to Maria and her colleagues, you also follow these two other convincing characters, Mocha Uson, the former pop star who became government secretary, and General Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa – both politically ambitious and relentless for Duterte. How exactly did you get to know them and why did they agree to appear in the document? Did you know that you also filmed with Maria and Rappler?
Diaz: I was very transparent with everyone. Mocha and Bato knew that I was filming Maria and vice versa. Even though Maria was arrested, we were on the news with her. It was hard to miss us. We didn't hide. The President himself was aware of us because I had to get permission to film his speeches at the political rallies up close, not just from the media box. I had to meet with the secretary of the presidential office for communication to get permission. I think being over the radar actually made us safer than if we had shot in secret. Our protection was to be visible.
I met Mocha and Bato through the official channels. I wrote them a letter and called their office every day to get an answer. I am also not an unknown company in the Philippines. I have made other films in the past that have gotten a big chunk, especially Imelda, about the former First Lady Imelda Marcos, which was my very first film in its infancy. They were familiar with this film and my other work. They also understood that my audience went beyond the Philippines because my films are made in the United States.
Mocha and Bato fascinate me. Nobody ever sees himself as an antihero in his own stories. I didn't want to be an excuse for them, but I always chase characters with the idea that they have a story to tell. What was mocha? What was batos? It is not about the "Gotcha" moment and about dismissing them as mere farmers of the Duterte administration, which is not productive and is not a convincing story. Nuance is my goal. Sometimes I get there and sometimes I don't, but that's always the intention.
Filmmakers: It struck me that both you and Maria share a similarly great responsibility when you have to look after the safety of others – you for your Rappler colleagues and you for your local crew. What measures have you taken and what recommendations could you make to other filmmakers facing such life and death strains?
Diaz: I would recommend hiring local fixers who have experience navigating in unsafe situations. They assess the danger and present it to you. You need to find out how high everyone's risk tolerance is. Be very transparent with the crew because these are very personal decisions. Above all, hire fixers who know how to get in and out quickly and can provide security when needed. And don't freak out if they use the word "extraction".
I clearly understood that the consequences for the local crew were far greater since they would stay long after packing up. When I realized that Maria was becoming the focus of Dutter's anger, I gave them a hint and made it clear that if they decided to leave, I wouldn't think badly of them. Not one person is left. They thought it was the right story.
I also offered anonymity in the credits, but everyone wanted to be named. They believed in the project and were proud to be allied with it. The shoot connected us like no other that I participated in. One thing that production did was to provide housing for everyone, avoiding hours of commuting at dawn and (sometimes) midnight. As long as I was in control of their safety, I would do something about it.
The bottom line is that you have to be realistic, recognize the danger, and decide whether to get in or out. Personally, my imagined regret if I hadn't followed the story outweighed the fear. What am I a documentary filmmaker for if I don't advance in such moments?
Filmmakers: As a Filipino-American documentary filmmaker who has spent much of your career in the Philippines, what changes have you seen over the years regarding the difficulties of filming in the country? Did you have to make any special adjustments at Duterte now?
Diaz: It is not so much due to Duterte or the responsible administration. I think the difficulties, like ridiculous and costly permits, have to do with the fact that more films are made on the street and in public spaces – advertising, fiction, non-fiction. If the police see a camera, you are immediately everywhere. That was not the case in the early days. I felt like I could film anywhere.
Filmmakers: Are you planning to continue filming after Maria has been convicted of cyber-defamation (whatever that is) and could be seriously jailed? Could this have any positive or negative impact on the bottom line?
Diaz: Cyber defamation is what it sounds like – defamation that occurs on the Internet. Ha. But yes, I was asked if I would do a second part. I think if there weren't a pandemic, I would probably keep the thought more serious. Or maybe I'm already on the ground and I'm shooting. Who knows?
But because the Philippines has been strictly blocked for 20 weeks, there is really nothing to film, except Maria in her apartment, who makes zoom calls in a row. Maybe there's a movie there. Actually, now that I think about it, it would be a completely different film. But there's something about Maria in her apartment that has to do with what the government throws at her every day, that's interesting. Will it change the bottom line? I think having a camera always changes the situation or the person being filmed. I think in this case the danger will be kept in check longer – but not forever. We can all be collateral, right? So grim. I didn't want to end up like this.