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Review: A Thousand Cuts (2020)

A Thousand Cuts (2020)

Directed by: Ramona S. Diaz

Premise: A documentary film about journalist Maria Ressa and the Filipino news website Rappler. The documentary examines Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s use of extrajudicial assassination against accused narcotics dealers and his attacks on the press through social media.

What Works: A Thousand Cuts is an examination of how a democracy becomes a police state. As the title implies, this happens through incremental expansions of state power and small but incessant attacks on the truth. The documentary examines Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign to end drug trafficking by enabling the country’s law enforcement to kill suspected dealers with impunity and the criticism of that program by the Filipino news website Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa. As depicted in the film, Duterte responds to negative press by threatening reporters and calling them liars and traitors. He’s backed by a network of social media sites that spread disinformation and erode public confidence in the fourth estate. That opens up a space for the government to take legal action against the press. This is nonfiction but the documentary has the feel of a thriller. A Thousand Cuts has an escalating sense of urgency as the threats against Maria Ressa and the staff of Rappler inch closer to intersection with the government’s assassination program. The filmmakers balance the exposition with human moments that document the emotional toll this assault on the press takes on the staff of Rappler and their loved ones. Much has been said in recent years about the post-truth world we live in. A Thousand Cuts visualizes it and documents the slide into authoritarianism not by a sudden military coup but by a combination of bread and circuses and a media climate that obfuscates the truth. The stakes of A Thousand Cuts go beyond the plight of a single journalist or news website. This story of legal force backed by weaponized social media is a portrait of democracy slipping into authoritarianism in real time.

What Doesn’t: The one element that A Thousand Cuts never really explores in a meaningful way is the prevalence of drug use or drug trade related violence in the Philippines. The documentary explains the popularity of Duterte and the state-sanctioned violence but it doesn’t give a sense of how bad the drug problem actually is or whether these assassination have had any impact on it. The filmmakers are more interested in the degradation of rule of law but exploring this area might have deepened A Thousand Cuts’ case and expanded the film’s credibility.

Bottom Line: A Thousand Cuts is a gripping portrait of a country sliding from democracy to authoritarianism. This is one of the most sobering depictions of weaponized social media and an alarming example of the fragility of democracy and rule of law.

Episode: #842 (March 7, 2021)