Maria Ressa has the dogged determination of a true newshound. The co-founder and chief executive of the Philippines’ news site Rappler.com, is a Time Person of the Year (2018) and recipient of numerous international journalism awards. As a former CNN staffer in the country (and also in Jakatra, Indonesia), the 56-year-old journalist had long specialised in investigating terrorist groups before founding Rappler.com in 2012. When, in 2016, controversial politician Rodrigo Duterte was elected on a populist platform that promised a «war on drugs» with a «shoot to kill» order to be issued to police, Maria’s moment came.
Darkness reigns all around
Marc Weise spent a year with Mara and her dedicated team of fearless young journalists as pressure mounted from a president and government that does not take at all kindly questioning.
For viewers who are accustomed to watching major documentaries on some of the world’s most disturbing human rights abuses, We Hold the Line offers an arguably less harrowing picture of a desperately sad and violent situation than some. Although Weise does not shy away from showing the bodies of the victims of the police and death squads – the slumped remains in dusty gutters often adorned with cardboard signs declaring, in English, they are drug abusers or drug pushers – his aim here is to shine a light on those who stand for truth and light when all around darkness reigns.
Maria is not a woman who scares easily. (A quick look at her biography reveals when threatened with the sack by a previous employer for moonlighting, she simply resigned in an open letter and continued with her remarkable career.) A Filipino woman who grew up and studied in the U.S. she brings first-world journalistic values to a country still mired in corruption and poverty.
The film opens with Maria interviewing Duterte shortly before he wins the presidency, noting that it is over 30 years since she last met him when he was mayor of Davao City. Duterte vows to continue the populist policies that won him re-election seven times as mayor when he becomes president. He does not mention it, but those policies included the extra-judicial killings for which he would become infamous and cost the lives of over 1,400, mostly poor, drug users, petty criminals, and street children – and those are only the documented killings.
What he does do is boast about how, when he says something, he keeps his word, and warns that drug pushers and other criminals will simply be shot under his style of presidency. Duterte keeps his word and within weeks of his inauguration, dozens of killings by police and freelance death squads are recorded.
Death is always the answer to all problems for these so-called leaders.
Weise follows Rappler’s lead and interviews the common people who make a living out of death as a young husband and wife describe how they receive an order – a name – and go out and kill that person. Some killings are harder than others, which is why the wife got involved. Women can be used in difficult situations as they are usually thought not to pose a risk. «If I cannot use a gun, I use a knife,» the young woman says, adding that she «wanted to try it out», to see how it was to kill.
It soon becomes apparent as Weise connects the dots – interviewing a senator who established that Duterte’s son is a member of a Chinese Triad responsible for major shipments of drugs into the country – and finding other death squad leaders who admit that orders come via an intermediary from the President himself, that Duterte has created an officially-sanctioned killing machine designed to give the impression that he is dealing with crime, when in fact he is the Mafia Don of a criminal state.
Grainy video footage of the execution of a local politician and his family – including a tiny baby – underlines the casual disregard for human life that is at the centre of what is, essentially, a war on the poor. The similarities between the extra-judicial killings in the Philippines and other countries, such as Brazil, that have equally unsavoury presidents are sadly unremarkable. This is the logic of populism taken to its extreme – just note Duterte’s recent threat to kill anyone breaching self-isolation rules in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Death is always the answer to all problems for these so-called leaders.
Maria and her team at Rappler refuse to be intimidated. Duterte is increasingly rankled – first he abuses Rappler reporters during presidential press briefings, then removes their rights to attend altogether. (Donald Trump may have only claimed he could shoot anyone on Fifth Avenue with impunity, but his treatment of the press is from the same playbook).
Freedom and truth
Rappler comes under increasing pressure as various laws and tax offenses are abused in an attempt to gag it. But Maria, a small but impressive presence at all times, refuses to be intimidated, posting bail each time and appealing to the crowds of reporters from other news outlets who jostle to hear her words to join hers in fighting for freedom and the truth.
We Hold the Line works because in Maria Ressa it has a true hero in the fight to maintain democracy as the forces of darkness threaten to sweep it away.
The film won the Copenhagen CPH:DOX F:ACT Award 2020.