Reel Life: The line of truth and democracy
At a time when Maria Ressa is grabbing headlines, Marc Wiese’s documentary 'We Hold The Line', offers a timely peep into her admirable life and her eternal battle for press freedom in the Philippines
Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that we have never seen our prime minister hold a press conference; so, the most chilling, and riveting, sequence in Marc Wiese’s documentary We Hold The Line turns out to be that of Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte officially taking questions from journalists in a 2018 conference.
But he doesn’t quite answer any of them. Instead, he blatantly dodges them and uses the occasion to spew invectives and threats on the media and displays aggression at its ugliest despite which a diminutive reporter from Rappler carries on probing him, even as he calls her media outlet “garbage”.
This moment of steady courage and defiance on her part sums up what the film is all about: the rise of dictatorship and media as the last line of democratic defence.
Rappler, the independent and influential online news site was cofounded by journalist Maria Ressa, who is also its CEO and the co-winner of the Noble Prize for Peace 2021. At a time when she is grabbing the headlines, the film offers a timely peep into her admirable life, the insidious politics of Duterte and Ressa’s eternal battle for press and democratic freedom in the face of his autocratic ways. A model for media around the world.
Wiese takes us faithfully down the chain of events and keeps us entirely engrossed as well. There is the positive perception-building about Duterte in 2015, on the eve of the presidential elections—the belief that with his “care and courage” he’d rid the country of chaos, poverty, drugs, and corruption. “It's going to be bloody. It's going to be a dictatorship,” he says without so much as blinking the eye.
We see him in the archival footage of Ressa’s second interview with him in 2015 in which he remembers the first that he had with her in 1987 and tom-toms killing three people as a Mayor of Davao.
What the film goes on to document is a brutal abuse of power and human rights violation—execution of thousands of people, often in front of their family members, by death squads ostensibly in the guise of wiping out the drug racket. But how genuine was this war against drugs?
Weren’t these extra-judicial killings tantamount to State sponsored organized crime? What nepotistic role was Duterte’s own son assigned in this game, with sheer impunity at that? The questions feel eerie and ominous when a drug war of our own is slowly unfolding.
Ressa is the “Last Woman Standing”, the one to hold the mirror up to the Duterte regime. She is the tie that also binds the film together. A woman who is unbreakable, a journalist who is uncompromising. The prize she earns for it are smear campaigns, several legal cases—from cyberlibel to tax evasion—filed as a mode to harass and silence her and two rounds of imprisonment to boot.
One right on her return from New York after attending the Time 100 conference as one of the journalists named as the magazine's 2018 Person of the Year.
Wiese knits together news footage, street scenes with interviews not just from Ressa and the other journalists but also the victims of Duterte’s politics, his political opponents in hiding and even the masked vigilante hitmen employed by the State to carry out its inhuman orders. It’s a horrifying thriller that takes us to the edge of the seat while reminding us that the toolkit, playbook or whatever else you may call it, of autocratic governance is the same everywhere.
Our leaders have the same style, Ressa tells Trump’s America—they are macho, misogynistic, sexist, and populist. “They use anger and fear to divide and conquer. They create and they live a politics of hate,” she says. Words that ring a bell. All of them are also afraid of journalists, a fear that gets masked with aggression and arrogance, disregard and lack of communication of any kind and a bid to silence the truth and the messenger.
The film is also a sobering reminder of democracy’s steady decline and the concomitant rise of fascism the world over, more so how it is riding high on the support of the majority. It talks about the newer challenges to the media in this scenario— “the weaponization of the social media and law”, as Ressa calls it, and the rise of the fake sites and trolls, both online and for real, the newer ways of harassment and persecution in collusion with State agencies like police and military.
She sets Philippines up as a cautionary tale for the world—how people can be made to believe that lies are facts and their minds be controlled. In this game, as she puts it, “the voice with the loudest microphone wins”. Hear hear.
The biggest message embedded in the film is that there can be no half measures in countering the menace of tyranny, other than fearlessly standing up to it. We Hold The Line is eventually a statement of solidarity for world media caught in the same unfortunate bind.
That times might be bad but there can still be a unity in adversity. It also ignites the hope that all might not yet be lost. That freedom shall be earned and reclaimed eventually. Long after the film is over Ressa’s words keep echoing in the mind: “When I look back a decade from now, I want to make sure I have done all I can. We will not duck, we will not hide, we will hold the line.” A pledge for the ages.
We Hold The Line can be rented in India on Vimeo.