When Filipino American documentary filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz saw reports of people being killed in the streets as part of newly elected Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, she knew what she wanted her next project to focus on. But when she arrived in the country, she discovered so many journalists covering the story that she figured she needed a different focus. The work of former CNN reporter and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa caught her eye.
“She was speaking out about Duterte and his disinformation campaign and how this was a bigger problem,” Diaz says. Ressa was soon arrested, and Diaz latched on to the journalist’s fight for freedom of the press against a populist dictatorial leader. That movie, “A Thousand Cuts,” bows Aug. 7 on virtual cinema, a VOD platform that supports local art-house theaters.
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To help fashion the story, Diaz called on editor Leah Marino, with whom she had collaborated on five other projects, including the acclaimed “Motherland,” a fly-on-the-wall look at the maternity ward in Manila’s Fabella Hospital, believed to be the busiest in the world.
“The wonderful thing about having a collaborator like Leah is I can data dump on her,” Diaz explains. “I can say, ‘I’ve met this character, and he’ll be interesting,’ and I know she’ll be processing ideas without having seen a single frame.”
When the film was picked up for competition in Sundance, Diaz had shot more than 700 hours of footage. She feared she and Marino wouldn’t be able to deliver a finished product in time. “Usually, Leah and I work on the edit for nine months,” Diaz says. “We edited it in four.”
While the focus is firmly on Ressa, other personalities in the doc emerge as supporting players. Blogger Mocha Uson, a key Duterte operative, posts disinformation that blurs time and events to weaken trust in the news. To Marino, Uson helps viewers understand what Duterte stands for. Still, the editor’s goal is not to vilify the 38-year-old singer, but rather to present her as a developed person. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, a former police official and political ally of Duterte who has spearheaded a public execution campaign against drug addicts, was another magnetic personality. The doc devoted time to both without letting them hijack the direction of the movie.
“We could have done separate films about those two,” notes Diaz.
Marino says that she and Diaz use a shorthand to be able to quickly identify what footage to include, rather than working through a start-to-finish story. The two pick out what they call “yummy scenes” and let that inspire the structure. “We break those down into ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ scenes,” says the editor.
Some of the “yummy scenes” the collaborators highlight include Ressa with her two sisters as she’s about to be honored as part of a group of journalists as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2018. “Those were key to showing who she is as a person,” Diaz notes. For Marino, an important scene features Bato speaking to a group of prison inmates, which illuminates the type of people who are being targeted by Duterte.
Ressa granted Diaz’s crew unlimited access, including strategy meetings with the journalist’s legal team. She put her trust in the filmmaker to tell a story and not reveal strategies that could compromise her. That footage was left on the cutting room floor. “One day, when [this is over],” Diaz says, “we’ll release the full thing.”
Marino had her work cut out for her when it came to deciphering Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines. Working with Diaz, she learned to identify bits of phrases. “There’s some Spanish and some English, and you pick them out,” Marino says. However, since the country is made up of 7,000 islands and different dialects abound, there are other instances in which, she allows, “I don’t understand one word.” Her secret, she says, is in recognizing rhythms of speech, and breaking sentences to conform to them.
“It’s pretty incredible,” says Diaz. “She cuts, and I think, ‘How did she know that was the point to cut?’”
Midway through the doc, the filmmakers focus on Ressa telling a crowd: “If you don’t use your rights, you lose them.” It’s a line she repeats, driving home the message to viewers in other nations who might also have long-held liberties at risk. Indeed, the film includes buzz phrases that have become familiar to American audiences. In one scene Duterte, portraying the press as an enemy of the people, talks of “fake news outlets.”
Even after its screening at Sundance, the doc has continued to evolve. Ressa was convicted of “cyber libel” on June 15. Neither Diaz nor Marino knows when the story will turn next, but as a filmmaker, Diaz knew she had to lock the picture for theatrical. Marino cut in Ressa’s conviction last month; the documentary was also trimmed from its two-hour run time at Sundance to just under 100 minutes.
By now, Diaz had hoped to be working on her dream to direct a narrative film, one in which she can control the ending. These days, endings elude her. That means Marino just might need to keep the editing bay at the ready.