Sunday Essay: A schmaltzy take on 'A Thousand Cuts'

Isolde D. Amante

RAMONA Diaz’s “A Thousand Cuts” is a claustrophobe’s ordeal.

It is jammed with scenes showing individuals, usually women, trying to make their way through dark and narrow spaces. One of the most beautiful of these scenes shows the legislator and journalist Samira Gutoc as she walks in a crowded market alley during the 2019 campaign for the Senate elections.

Ahead of her, the space widens and we can see the lights that warm the vendors and their wares. That brightness seems within reach.

Gutoc, as we all probably know, lost that election after getting 4.35 million votes, which landed her in the 25th spot. None of the 12 who won the Senate elections last year had allied themselves with the opposition. The results, while dismaying, did not surprise.

The inclusion of Gutoc’s story in “A Thousand Cuts” makes it feel like a cautionary tale. The documentary is, in part, about difficult yet necessary battles.

It is also about how these battles are not always won.

Tomorrow, the Manila Regional Trial Court is scheduled to announce its verdict in an online libel case against Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos, Jr.

This is the same case for which the National Bureau of Investigation detained Ressa overnight in February 2019. It is not the main event in this documentary. Neither is it the same case for which the police welcomed her back in March 2019 by arresting her and escorting her into a police van as soon as she arrived at the airport from a trip overseas. This administration has filed so many lawsuits and charges against Ressa and Rappler that it’s getting difficult to keep track.

I watched the documentary a day after protesters against the anti-terrorism bill had held a rally in Quezon City, while keeping a safe physical distance from one another. Citizens speaking up—peacefully, responsibly—in the midst of a quarantine! It’s all so moving.

What else was moving? Those scenes in the documentary from an interview that Maria had with President Rodrigo Duterte, just after he had won the May 2016 elections. They sit across from one another, like two friends sitting across a chessboard, and disagree graciously, almost warmly.

That used to be possible: to disagree without being hateful. Imagine that!

We all know what came after. Rappler faced a barrage of cases and the humiliation and hate unleashed by partisan individuals and groups on social media. This is perhaps the darkest space we must all learn to make our way out of: this mistaken belief that it is unpatriotic to ask questions, that our duty is blind obedience.

That dissent is not a duty but a distraction.

It shames me to admit that I worry about what could happen to Maria Ressa today. Maria is the bravest, most resilient, and arguably the most astute truth-teller I know. Her example inspires me. And yet I also know what some of the men (and, sadly, women) in power are capable of.

One of the parts of “A Thousand Cuts” that I enjoyed showed Maria as she rehearsed her toast for the Time 100 gala in New York in April last year. She skims through the lines about what it feels like to live in a country led by “a macho, populist, sexist at best—misogynistic, at worst—figure who uses anger and fear to divide and conquer.” The politics of hate.

She turns to a friend and quips, “We need to put hope and love (in this speech) but I’m going to sound schmaltzy.” She pauses and then adds, “It is not with hate but with hope and love that we hold the line.” She turns again to draw support from her friend, which is something we must all learn to do more often. “Is that too much? Is it corny?”

Not at all, Maria. It is not too much at all. I know I am not alone in saying this: We believe in you and we support you. Thank you for teaching us how to speak truth to power, no matter the cost, and how to hold the line.