The alarm was sounded around the middle of the last decade on disinformation campaigns deemed to threaten social institutions founded on managing free-flowing information. It’s an issue that would have been resolved promptly if only the suspected progenitors of such campaigns did not come from governments themselves, as happened in the developed countries of the global north. Of late, this phenomenon has been subject to documentaries such as Hans Pool’s Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World (2018) and Lucas Gallo’s 1982 (2019).
In the lesser ends of the world, former colonies like the Philippines are no stranger to such problems. This is why the mainstream public sphere deemed it necessary for independent journalism to step within the mess of information and disinformation and make facts appear. Ramona Diaz’s documentary A Thousand Cuts frames this condition within the particular conflict between institutions that deem management of information vital to their social roles.
Diaz, whose lens has often framed women from Imelda Marcos in Imelda (2003) to the mothers admitted at the Fabella Hospital in Motherland (2017), followed Rappler founder and CEO Maria Ressa as she battled through the growing network of disinformation supporting the murderous anti-drug campaigns – the Oplan Tokhang – under the command of the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
It was 2018 and the newsroom of Rappler was busy preparing their coverage of the third State of the Nation address of President Duterte. We’re introduced to Ressa’s allies in the narrative: Rappler’s correspondent to the Presidential Press Corps Pia Ranada, crime reporter Rambo Talabong and investigative journalist Patricia Evangelista who’s on the frontside of news gathering in the Tokhang cases. As the story unwraps, we are also introduced to the forces antithetical with Rappler: former entertainer and Duterte supporter, Mocha Uson and former Police and Corrections chief, Ronald Dela Rosa. In-between, senatorial hopeful from the opposition party, Samira Gutoc, is being contrasted against President Duterte’s misogyny whom Dela Rosa’s political campaigns represent. It is also around this time that Ressa was dubbed a conspirator to a destabilization plot by the President and has since been a target of legal and physical threats by government supporters.
From the get-go, the documentary makes it clear that we are seeing a familiar narrative. Ressa’s story unfolds as a kind of hero’s journey: we are introduced to the allies and the foes and the conflict between fact and disinformation. While personal nuances are considered for Uson and Dela Rosa, the selection of images montaged on establishing them often depict them on the side of evil. Gutoc, on the other hand, is introduced as a figure equal to that of Ressa, based more on her personality as a strong woman. The hero’s journey’s structure makes the film easy to follow without neglecting significant aspects of the context of the situation.
There’s something interesting outside of the hero’s journey framework that the film brings to the fore which is Ressa explanation of the very mechanics of disinformation through networks of social media accounts and influencers. However, the film seems less interested in these mechanics. Instead, A Thousand Cuts tries to make sense of the situation through its effects (in Tokhang, in the Election campaigns) in an almost secondary manner, as the film sticks with following Ressa in her tour around the world like a hero on a crusade.
The documentary attempts to unite the Tokhang, the upcoming 2019 midterm elections and the threats against Ressa in a thread that makes its point of contention regarding disinformation essential. We see Dela Rosa pin street safety as an effect of the Oplan Tokhang, which for him, is the Duterte Administration’s greatest achievement and must be continued. As a figure on the side of disinformation, this move is seen as a point of justification for more disinformation campaigns which ultimately leads to attacks against the media institutions themselves, with Rappler as the campaign’s focus. Ressa the hero returns from her journey and was taken into custody for libel.
What happened to Ressa becomes a point of symbolism in the documentary, or a myth, which furthers her hero status, on top of the accolades from Time and other foreign institutions. Ressa’s call to the president to just let them do their job does not reduce this status, but in fact reinforces it.
Diaz’ framing of Ressa attempts to balance her subject’s conviction for facts as a duty on one side, and her strength as a woman on the other. The mechanics of the conflict introduced, the conflict between fact and disinformation, was not pursued in any more detail to make it front and center. In that respect, it’s a missed opportunity. By comparison, Pool’s Bellingcat succeeded in balancing the personal with the issues at hand by focusing not on mythologizing the Bellingcat collective as heroic figures, but to instead locate Bellingcat’s place within the structure and politics of information. What we get from A Thousand Cuts is a familiar story, that may or may not serve as a warning (despite real threats), that ends with a symbolic victory in the form of a corporate party.