There’s something distinctly dark about the world of investigative reporting when asking questions comes at a cost, but finding answers raises the price that much higher. Such an idea is implied in the film A Thousand Cuts, directed by Ramona S. Diaz and featuring the journalist and co-founder of online news site Rappler Maria Ressa. Ressa made headlines earlier this year after being found guilty of “cyber-libel” by the Philippines for a previous Rappler story about businessman Wilfredo Keng, and A Thousand Cuts doesn’t shy away from the controversy. Instead, it illustrates the backlash against Ressa as evidence that only exposure of the truth could spark such fear and aggression.
Through a blend of interviews, political footage and propaganda, A Thousand Cuts captures the intense world of journalism and the investigative truth-seeking it entails. With the figure of Ressa as the microcosm of truth, Diaz uncovers the layers behind the information we consume and the process of consuming it. By pointedly displaying headlines below footage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s political ascent and subsequent drug war, the film shows us that the media coverage of politics has just as much of an impact as the very response to politics itself.
Cuts of Duterte addressing crowds are interspersed with political commentary by journalists, who critically dissect his words in relation to his real motivations. And while these moments make the film a bit dry — more like a news piece with less of a narrative, which political documentaries can often wind up as — this does not deter the film’s emphasis on Ressa as an individual, who Diaz never forgets is the key player of this documentary.
A Thousand Cuts draws attention to what’s going on in the Philippines as not a pure condemnation of politics as an institution, but instead the way that the law is twisted to ensure that politicians are never held accountable — a byproduct, Ressa seemingly tells us, of the corruption of human ambition. Within the film, journalism becomes the voice that speaks out against these reported crimes against humanity.
“What we’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts of our democracy,” Ressa says in a speech, a moment in the film where the impact of her words ring all too true on not only a domestic scale, but a global one. The provocative depiction of the press forces at risk and the political forces that seek to antagonize them is portrayed both in broad terms (the wider use of the word “presstitute” and its sexist implications, for one) and in personal ones. The viewer, for example, sees journalist Pia Ranada’s interrogation of Duterte abruptly turning into Duterte’s interrogation of her as a person. One can’t help but watch with fear and anxiety as Duterte rages at Ranada, telling her that she will go to jail for her own crimes. Ranada can only shake her head, silent but resolute.
Above all, A Thousand Cuts looks at language: how we use it and the subliminal ways it becomes a force for the people. Language, as the film tells us, can be used as a tool to weaponize corruption; according to Ressa, it can be used to promote a false reality. Or, as Ressa demonstrates, it can be an instrument for change, with freedom of speech the mechanism by which journalists seek justice.
An ode to journalism in all its trials, A Thousand Cuts represents itself as a testament to the bravery and persistence of journalists who represent the essence of investigative reporting. At its most idealistic, the film often appears one-dimensional, portraying journalists as the noble heroes and politicians the enemies of justice. But in its most nuanced, the film is a tribute to Maria Ressa and the truth-seeking journalists who press on for change not in spite of the power dynamics at play, but because of them.