Presumably, this documentary is meant to and does serve as a warning to democracies around the world when democracy itself seems to be more and more fragile as time goes on, and more populist leaders become heads of increasingly authoritarian governments. This is the story of how that process advanced in the Philippines with the 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte for President, and his re-election for a second term in 2018.
Most of the focus is on a journalist named Maria Ressa, the head of the publication Rappler, in her efforts to inform voters of Duterte’s stringent policies toward his single issue—drugs. During the almost two-hour presentation, no other issue comes to the fore, giving me the impression that Duterte’s platform has been about nothing else except, of course, loyalty to him and his regime. He is called to task by journalists questioning his single-minded politics and its effects, to which he responds with insults and efforts to arrest and imprison them. (He has no compunction about killing people on the street without giving them the benefit of a hearing.)
Ressa gives numerous examples of how Duterte managed to gain his power, even though just before his first election he was considered a “wild card.” One of his methods was to capture the media in a way that separated out disinformation media from traditional news reporting that has the aim of objectivity and facts. Duterte used social media to distort the news (sometimes through fake accounts with the ability to fan out to millions of other accounts), and using a sensational pop star—Mocha Uson with millions of followers—to support him with nationalist-type messages advocating undivided loyalty to leaders in power. Ressa calls these tactics the “weaponization of the internet”, which includes the use of algorithms in social media like Facebook that do not distinguish fact from fiction—all of which can undermine democracy.
Duterte’s crudeness is shown by quoted statements such as, “If you end up dead, it’s your fault” (spoken to media). In response to Ressa’s charge that he is supposed to be the protector of the constitution and the rule of law, his response is, “Because of the rule of law, there must be fear.” This is an example of how he can distort the question by replying to another issue.
A Thousand Cuts is basically a good documentary in getting the facts across; however, I do have a problem with Ramona S. Diaz’ direction and the other filmmakers involved. Namely, they rushed through the production with too many items on the screen at the same time (e.g., billboards, footnotes) as the primary scene. There is no way one could read and process all the information for the brief period it was on. Even the single frames with written information didn’t stay on long enough.
In all, though, A Thousand Cuts does show how thousands of cuts to a democracy can kill it. If we value our democracy, we should all be fearful. Maria Ressa says we are in a time of existential crisis, and sadly I think she may be right.
This film is a wake-up call to many democracies of today.