Why is Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte still popular in his own country? Despite the lost livelihoods of Filipino fishermen, he has basically conceded China’s claims of sovereignty of the entire South China Sea. Even though he presides over large Catholic and Muslim populations, he continues to cozy up to Xi’s regime, while it razes churches, persecutes believers of all faiths, and wages a campaign of cultural genocide and mass incarceration against the Muslim Uyghurs. It certainly helps that Duterte shares the CCP’s hostility towards a free press. Ramona S. Diaz follows one of his leading journalistic gadflies as she deals with trolling, death threats, and specious criminal charges in A Thousand Cuts, which releases virtually tomorrow.
Maria Ressa interviewed Duterte several times during his rise to power. As we can see from the clips Diaz incorporates, she was tough, but always respectful. She clearly was not “out to get him” from the start. Nonetheless, her online news outlet Rappler aggressively covered his “war on drugs” and the extralegal killings it inspired, which inevitably brought her into conflict with his government.
Diaz also follows Mocha Uson, a former pop idol who now serves as the field marshal of Duterte’s social media army, as well as his hand-picked senate candidate and a long-shot opposition rival. Frankly, Diaz is so fair in her approach, she shows Uson’s human side, even while capturing all the slimy trolling she facilitates.
Thousand Cuts is all observation, with no talking head interviews to tell us what to think. Nevertheless, what she records is undeniably damning. After watching Duterte’s orchestrated harassment of Ressa and Rappler reporters, it is clear the free press in the Philippines faces dire, existential threats—and consequently, so does its democracy. Diaz even managed to affix an up-to-the-moment post-script that is impressive in its nimbleness, but chilling in its implications.
Of course, a little Trump-bashing couldn’t hurt Cuts on the festival circuit. It is a disturbing warning of how quickly and easily free expression rights can slip away. We should take note, because there is pressure to curtail our 1st Amendment freedoms from both sides of the political spectrum. Recommended as a document of free expression under fire, A Thousand Cuts opens virtually tomorrow (8/7).