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“Very Much Like Short Cuts, and the Medfly was Duterte — That Was My Pitch”: Ramona S. Diaz on A Thousand Cuts

A Thousand Cuts

While recent right-wing attacks on the free press here in the US have rightly been sounding alarm bells, in a global context they are merely wake-up calls. Sure, Trump deeming the “lamestream” media “fake news” is dangerously juvenile, but it’s also a far cry from, say, the Duterte administration finding the founder and CEO of the Philippines’s top online news site Rappler guilty of “cyber libel” — a travesty of justice that happened just this past June. And the politically orchestrated verdict comes with both a hefty fine and potential prison time for “2018 Time Person of the Year” Maria Ressa along with a former colleague.

Though it’s not hard to see why Ressa, a superhumanly dogged journalistic force (with a default mode set to unbridled optimism), might get under a murderous strongman’s skin. What’s less immediately apparent is how Ressa has even managed to survive for this long within a system determined to sentence dissent to death by “a thousand cuts,” as the title of award-winning director Ramona S. Diaz’s latest documentary suggests.

Fortunately, Diaz, a Filipino-American filmmaker, has been a longtime observer of the complicated country and its culture — from 2004’s Imelda to 2017’s Motherland — so she’s able to shine a big-picture light on both Ressa and the wider context that her team of investigative journalists are forced to operate in. Indeed, A Thousand Cuts goes beyond providing an intimate journey alongside Ressa and her heroic Rappler reporters as they relentlessly battle to expose Duterte’s corrupt war on drugs for the war on poor drug addicts that it actually is (even while they themselves serve as targets of the government’s highly effective, social media disinformation campaign). Smartly, Diaz also turns her lens to the politically savvy, pro-Duterte side, by tagging along as government secretary Mocha Uson, a onetime pop star, and General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, a retired Police General, spread a message of intolerance and hate — online and on the stump — in the most upbeat, crowd-pleasing ways. Which renders the dark side even darker.

So to learn more about documenting the heart of Duterte’s Philippines, and what her lead character’s recent guilty verdict means for both Ressa and the future of Diaz’s filmmaking there, Filmmaker reached out to the director a few days prior to the August 7th virtual release of A Thousand Cuts (through PBS Distribution and Frontline).

Filmmaker: I actually saw Marc Wiese’s We Hold The Line at this year’s virtual CPH:DOX, which made me wonder if you had to navigate around a German film crew during production! So how long was the shoot with Maria and Rappler, and what are some of the challenges when filming with a famous, in-demand lead character?

Diaz: We started filming Maria on July 23, 2018, to be exact, during President Duterte’s third State of the Nation address. We returned in October and November to continue filming. By then I’d decided to make the midterm elections the backdrop of the film, and set principal photography to begin in February and to continue all the way to election month in May.

When we started filming Maria in 2018, she had not been named “Time Person of the Year” yet, her arrests were still in the future, and she wasn’t the in-demand character that she eventually became. In those early days in 2018, television crews came around to film short pieces about Maria and we just incorporated them into our shooting; we filmed them videotaping her. Included in this was the German crew, and it was my understanding that they were filming more of the drug war than Maria.

All of them came and went, and we stayed. Also, at this time, she was not the lead of the film. I was still envisioning an Altmanesque-like ensemble cast made up of Maria, and allies of the president and opposition leaders. Very much like Short Cuts, and the medfly was Duterte. That was my pitch. So we filmed equally with the other characters, like Duterte allies Mocha Uson and General Bato dela Rosa, in 2018.

I arrived in Manila to prep on February 12, 2019. My crew were arriving the next week. The very next day I get a text from Maria asking me to please come to Rappler headquarters if I wasn’t busy because she was about to get arrested. Of course I dropped everything and, realizing I’d never make it to Rappler, I decided to go directly to the National Bureau of Investigations (like the Philippines’ FBI).

Due to some blessing from the documentary gods, we actually caught up with the convoy that was taking Maria to the NBI, so we just inserted ourselves into the stream. I fought my way to the front of the crowd when we arrived at the NBI and said I was with Rappler, so they let me inside the room where she was being held. And then that was that, we never left her side. (I hired a local crew for the few days before my crew arrived.)

And as she obviously became the center of gravity of the film, and it shifted from my original idea, one unit was assigned exclusively to Maria. So by the time everyone else came around to film her, we were already deeply embedded with her. We were the only ones allowed to film her intimately (gosh I hate that word, but you know what I mean), to travel with her, meet her family, etc. We were the first ones in and the last ones out.

I film immersively; that’s why I’ve never gone after breaking news. I don’t know how to navigate that world. Actually, when I first got to Manila at the end of 2017, with this vague notion of making a film about the drug war, I discovered that there were so many people already making films about the drug war. I had to pivot, and that’s how I “discovered” Maria and honed in on her. Gaining access is hard enough as it is, but to fight other film crews? Nothing good ever comes from that. 

Filmmaker: Besides Maria and her colleagues, you also follow those two other compelling characters, Mocha Uson, the former pop star who became a government secretary, and General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa — both politically ambitious and adamantly pro-Duterte. So how exactly did you meet them, and why did they agree to appear in the doc? Were they aware you were also filming with Maria and Rappler?

Diaz: I was very transparent with everyone. Mocha and Bato knew I was filming Maria, and vice versa. Also, whenever Maria got arrested we were all over the news with her. It was hard to miss us. We weren’t hiding. The president himself was aware of us because I had to get permission to film his speeches at the political rallies up close, and not just from the media box. I had to meet with the Secretary of the Presidential Communications Office to acquire permission. I think being above radar actually made us safer than if we had shot secretly. Being visible was our protection.

I met Mocha and Bato through the formal channels. I wrote them a letter and would call their office every day for a response. I’m also not an unknown entity in the Philippines. I’ve done other films in the past that have gotten major play, most particularly Imelda, about former First Lady Imelda Marcos, which was my very first film back in the early aughts. They were familiar with this film and with my other work. They also understood that my audience went beyond the Philippines because my films are produced in the US.

Mocha and Bato intrigue me. No one ever sees themselves as anti-heroes in their own narratives. I didn’t want to be an apologist for them by any means, but I always pursue characters with the idea that they have a story to tell. What was Mocha’s? What was Bato’s? It’s not about the “gotcha” moment and dismissing them as mere pawns of the Duterte administration, which is not productive and doesn’t make for a compelling story. Nuance is my goal. Sometimes I get there and sometimes I don’t, but that is always the intention.

Filmmaker: It struck me that both you and Maria share a similar heavy responsibility in having to look out for the safety of others — she for her Rappler colleagues and you for your local crew. What measures did you take, and what recommendations might you have for other filmmakers faced with such a life-and-death burden?

Diaz: I would recommend hiring local fixers experienced in navigating uncertain situations. They assess danger and present it to you, and you have to figure out what is everyone’s risk tolerance. Be very transparent with the crew, because these are highly personal decisions. Most of all, hire fixers who know how to get you in and out of places quickly and can provide security when needed. And don’t freak when they use the word “extraction.”

I clearly understood that for the local crew the consequences were far greater because they would stay long after we wrapped. When I realized that Maria was becoming the focal point of Duterte’s ire, I gave them an out and made it clear that I wouldn’t think badly of them if they decided to walk away. Not one person left. They felt it was the right story to tell.

I also offered anonymity in the end credits, but all wanted to be named. They believed in the project and were proud to be allied with it. The shoot bonded us like no other I’d been on. One thing production did was provide housing for everyone, which avoided hours-long commutes at dawn and (sometimes) midnight. For as long as I had control over their safety, I would do something about it. 

The bottom line is you have to be realistic and acknowledge the danger and decide if you’re in or out. Personally, my imagined regret had I not pursued the story outweighed the fear. What am I a documentary filmmaker for if I don’t step up at moments like these?

Filmmaker: As a Filipino-American documentarian who’s spent much of your career shooting in the Philippines, what changes have you seen over the years in terms of the difficulties of filming in the country? Have you had to make specific adjustments with Duterte now in charge?

Diaz: It’s not so much because of Duterte, or which administration is in charge. I think the difficulties, like ridiculous and costly permits, have to do with more films being shot on the streets and in public spaces — commercials, fiction, nonfiction. When the police see a camera they’re all over you immediately. That wasn’t the case in the early days. I felt like I could film anywhere.

Filmmaker: Now that Maria has been convicted of cyber libel (whatever that is) and could seriously face some prison time, do you plan to resume filming? Could doing so affect the final outcome, for better or worse, in any way?

Diaz: Cyber libel is what it sounds like — libel that occurs on the internet. Ha. But yes, I’ve been asked whether I’d do a part two. I think if there wasn’t a pandemic I probably would be entertaining the thought more seriously. Or perhaps I’d already be on the ground shooting. Who knows?

But because the Philippines has been under strict lockdown for 20 weeks now, there’s really nothing to be filmed except Maria in her condo doing Zoom calls back-to-back. Now maybe there’s a film there, perhaps. Actually now that I think about it, it would be a very different film. But there is something about Maria in her condo day in and day out, having to deal with what’s being thrown her way by the government, that’s interesting. Will it change the final outcome? I think the presence of a camera always changes the situation or person being filmed. I think in this case, it’ll keep danger at bay longer – but not forever. We can all be collateral, right? So grim. I didn’t mean to end that way.

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