jeremy chan/getty images
jeremy chan/getty images
Award-winning filmmaker Ramona Diaz, who gave us such memorable documentaries as Imelda, Motherland, and Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, is now premiering her latest passion project, A Thousand Cuts, a documentary on internationally acclaimed journalist-activist Maria Ressa, founder of the online news site Rappler and Time’s Person of the Year in 2018.
An outspoken critic of the government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, especially of his “war on drugs” which has led to the violent killing of thousands of Filipinos, Ressa and a former staffer at Rappler, Reynaldo Santos, Jr., were recently found guilty of cyber libel by a Manila trial court last June. Both currently posted bail while they appeal the verdict.
We talked to Diaz and Ressa via Zoom.
Ramona, can you talk about why this is a passion project of yours? What challenges did you encounter in making this project?
Ramona Diaz A lot. For all my projects, I have to move to the Philippines because I don't helicopter in. I have to move there, figure out what's going on the ground and then figure out the story. I do, of course, arrive in the country with the large themes. I knew I wanted to make a film about the Philippines under Duterte because it was alarming what was going on. I'm a Martial Law baby. I grew up under (Ferdinand Marcos’) Martial Law and it seemed like, "Wait, what's happening? We fought this already. This is a battle we won," so that's what I wanted to do. It was key for me to really figure out the story of the Philippines right now, and of course, Maria then emerged because she was speaking so loudly against Duterte with Rappler and also talking about disinformation. It was all of these very specific issues to the Philippines, but also very global. There is (a lot of) specificity to the story and also the universal aspects of the story that I thought would resonate beyond the Philippines. As you know, I'm always telling stories that go beyond the Philippines because my audience is here. I produce my films here and they're always passion projects. I get obsessed especially with people I film because I say that I make documentary films in order to experience all these things. I did Journey because I wanted to see what it's like to be a rock star. I guess I'm doing A Thousand Cuts to see what it feels like to be this beleaguered journalist who's the object of the administration's hatred.
Maria, what made you agree to do this documentary and how was it filming with Ramona?
Maria Ressa First, let me correct Ramona. She said I was speaking so loudly. Remember, all I was doing was holding the line. At that point, I was just saying, "Look. Look at this disinformation." I was actually so careful not to be seen as attacking for my personal purpose, which is what journalists do. We don't do that. But the abuses of power really pushed me beyond, and it's a combination of the actions of the Duterte administration and the actions of Silicon Valley. We needed to challenge impunity on two fronts, of Facebook and the drug war. Anyway, so why? Why Ramona? I think three reasons. The first is like you, (she is) Filipino-American. Being Filipino is one thing, being American is another thing. Being Filipino-American is actually another thing. You're part of both worlds, but you're part of neither. You guys probably feel this. I always say I feel most Filipino when I'm with Americans and most American when I'm with Filipinos, and I try so hard in my life to pull the best of both worlds together. I thought Ramona understood that, and that's a unique perspective.
The second was because so much was happening during this time. I knew we needed to document it. The manangs, the (women) founders of Rappler, we had talked about this amongst ourselves. I'm like, "Oh my God, guys, look at what's happening! Why are we not doing a story!?" But we can't keep doing stories about ourselves. We don't do that. We were forced to. Here comes this third party filmmaker. So, we knew it was going to be shot well. We knew it was going to be someone else documenting it, someone who was a witness to it, not us because it should be documented. And then the third was trust, and I'll start with this. When Ramona first came to my office, what I remembered was that she turned me down for an interview on Imelda in 2004. That's what I told her, but I think what wound up happening was I watched her over time. You give access. Because at that point, I was pretty open because that was the only way. We needed to tell our stories. We needed to shine the light. And other people need to tell our stories. We can't tell it ourselves. With what we gave her, then it was Ramona, then it was looking at her. Is she trustworthy? I liked how she was upfront, that she was also following people that I personally wouldn't have had access to. I found that interesting.
Maria, I want to ask you about the support of George and Amal Clooney to you. Can you please talk about that?
MR: I love them. Let me see, the first time I really had to deal with the idea of prison was their fault. In April of 2019, the Clooney Foundation invited me to help launch TrialWatch at Columbia University in New York. And I go in there and they launched TrialWatch and we had our first meeting. But in the panel with me were two journalists. There was Mohamed Fahmy, who is a reporter who was jailed in Egypt with Al Jazeera. And then on my left was Jason Rezaian, who's now with the Washington Post. But he was jailed in Iran for 544 days. When I met him then he gave me his book that had just been published, it's called Prisoner. And listening to them made me realize I don't have it so bad. These guys lived through the things that I may have to move through. And that was when I began the first time really thinking about possibly going to jail. I was like it's scary. And that book helped me. So on the flight home, I read it cover to cover then I was in touch with both Jason and Yeganeh, his wife, who's Iranian who may not have survived in Iran if she hadn't been married to an American who was a pawn in the relations between Iran and the United States? Anyway, that was when I met George and Amal Clooney. We met upstairs in a room. It was the office of someone, and I was first inside the room. Ramona was with us in that meeting. And we had asked if we could film this meeting. They said, no. So they come in after it and Amal was with her mom, and what they did is as soon as they got into the room, George asks everyone to leave. And one of the people there said, "Wait, wait, let me make coffee." He looks at the coffee machine, it was an espresso machine, and he laughed and said, "I got this." And so Amal as soon as she walks into the room, she starts talking in a way that I had to whip out my notebook because everything she was saying, she essentially laid out what was going to happen in the coming months. And she's been absolutely spot on. And then while she was talking, she sat on the other side of the table, I was taking notes. George Clooney was making us coffee. How crazy is that? All I wanted to do while I was taking notes was, "Can I whip out my phone and shoot the video?" Remember, that time period, Amal was negotiating with the Myanmar government for the release of the Reuters journalists. And there was a headline that the government was standing firm. And she just said then, "Maria, this isn't for publication, but they'll be out in two weeks' time." And they were out in two weeks' time. And then Amal essentially gave me a choice. TrialWatch can monitor our court cases, in which she said that, if that's the case, that she can't be an advocate. She must look at the justice system, which also would have been really interesting. Imagine Amal Clooney judging the justice system. Or the other route, as she said, "Well, if I'm your lawyer, then I can be an advocate." And she gave me the choice. I waited until the two weeks when the Reuters journalists were released. I emailed her immediately, saying, "Amal, please be my lawyer." And so that's how it began.
Ramona, did you ever have any fears or get worried about your staff while filming this?
RD: Oh, absolutely. And especially the local staff, because they stayed there. So aside from me, I brought on two cinematographers and a couple of sound people. Everyone else is local, the fixers, the field producers, everyone else. And we had a conversation when it was very apparent that we were covering Maria, and Maria was in the crosshairs of the President. So I told them, ‘You don't have to stay, I'm not going to (hold) it against you, I truly understand.’ Not one of them left. They all said, ‘No, this is the right story to tell. We should be telling the story.’
Maria, you get a lot of threats and nasty messages. Do you ever fear for your life?
MR: At different times. You can have infinite fears at this point in time. This is a long haul battle. It's been four years so far, and some days I wake up and I feel really, really good, and other days I wake up and I'm not so good. But I think that what unites all of the days is the idea that, in a weird way, it's good that the government focuses on me because I'm in great shape. I know why I'm a journalist. I have an organization we built from scratch that understands the mission of journalism that understands the context of the times. Every person in Rappler chose to be in Rappler. And you know what? Nietzsche was right, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And so, I guess, you look for the bright side. There is only one way to look at things as glass half full, and the best part is that time matters.