In ‘A Thousand Cuts,’ filmmaker Ramona Diaz looks at the Philippines and beyond

Bea Cupin

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In ‘A Thousand Cuts,’ filmmaker Ramona Diaz looks at the Philippines and beyond
Her latest documentary tackles the rise of authoritarianism, disinformation, press freedom and – although she didn’t mean to – 'living in a space between the Philippines and the US'

MANILA, Philippines – That Ramona Diaz’s documentary about the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte eventually zoomed in on Rappler and its CEO, Maria Ressa, seems to have been destined.

The documentary filmmaker, whose work has tackled everything from Filipino rock stars to the wife of a dictator, arrived in Manila on February 12, 2019 – exactly a day before Ressa’s arrest at the Rappler headquarters over a cyber libel complaint for a 5-year-old story. 

“It was like…ok, here we go. Fasten your seatbelts,” Diaz recalled during the “Truthtellers Panel” at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26. A Thousand Cuts, which chronicles the struggles of press freedom and democracy under Duterte, premiered in the festival in the US Documentary Competition.

Maria’s 2019 arrest jumpstarted an entire year of legal battles against Rappler, among the news organizations critical of Duterte and his policies, including, and especially, his bloody “war on drugs.”

“You’ll go away thinking that there are a lot of similarities between what’s happened here [the US] and the Philippines – and really, worldwide – this rise of authoritarianism, this rise of fear and [people asking] where do they go to, where do they turn to? The strong men, right? It’s a global story,” said Diaz.

In A Thousand Cuts, Diaz talks not only to Ressa and Rappler but to personalities in the Duterte administration including entertainer-turned-government-official Mocha Uson and Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who as Duterte’s police chief first led the “drug war.”

The Asian-American experience

The idea behind what would eventually be A Thousand Cuts was vague at first, Diaz said. Fresh off Motherland, a documentary on the country’s national maternity hospital, the Filipino-American filmmaker only had a “vague notion” of wanting to do something about Duterte and the drug war.

It was in the process of research that she met Ressa.

“We met and I knew that she was going to be a big part of the story,” said Diaz, describing the veteran journalist as “compelling and articulate about what’s happening to the country.”

And while the film focuses on press freedom, disinformation, and the rise of authoritarianism, it also touches on a topic close to both the filmmaker and her subject’s hearts: the Asian-American experience.

“It just dawned on me that I relate to her very much on that level,” said Diaz. The two women – arguably, pioneers in their fields – are both Filipino-Americans. They also both bore the brunt of being brown in America.

“She talks about landing in Toms River, being a brown kid, not speaking the language and trying to run away from everything brown because what was that, the ’80s? [It was 1973] and so that’s what you did then,” said Diaz.

“Talking about how you had to work 100% or 110% in order to feel that you deserved being there – I totally related to that. I knew what that felt like,” the filmmaker said, talking about “living in a space between the Philippines and the US.”

A Thousand Cuts debuted at the Utah-based festival to a standing ovation. –


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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.