“And So It Begins” Picks Up Where the Last Filipino Presidential Elections Left Off

And So It Begins- Two people; wearing white and blue

(Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Veronika Lee Claghorn

The Monday, January 22 premiere of And So It Begins, a documentary about the 2022 Filipino elections, starts where it last finished. After all, it’s the follow-up and companion piece to the 2020 film, A Thousand Cuts from director Ramona Diaz. Documenting the election cycle of the 2022 presidential campaign in the Philippines, And So It Begins continues exploring the nuances of democracy in a very Catholic country that seemingly has populist beliefs and disinformation issues similar to those in the United States. 

Those who have seen the director’s previous film will be familiar with former Vice President Leni Robredo, a member of the country’s Liberal Party, who decided to throw her hat in the ring for the country’s 2022 campaign against Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., a controversial figure often compared to a dictator and enemy of freedom.

After screening her latest entry into the Sundance world, Diaz invites two of the subjects of her film to the stage: Rodredo and Nobel Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa, co-founder of Rappler, an independent news source. Greeted by a standing ovation from the audience at The Ray Theatre in Park City, Utah, Ressa says that as soon as she won the prestigious international award for her impartial reporting, the phones at her offices started ringing off the hook and her fellow journalists were excited. She shakes her head, “I had to tell them that this only meant we had to work harder.” For Ressa, it was important that the more progressive voters of the Philippines be mobilized to continue their aspirations to take control of the more traditional and conservative country. 

Robredo, dressed in a navy blue blazer as opposed to the hot pink of her campaign, explicates: “We feel like we’ve been living in a state of hell since I announced my candidacy.” (It should be noted that a presidential candidate may announce their intention to run for president while still serving in office as Vice President.) “For six years we’ve been living in an atmosphere of fear where no one is brave enough to say anything.”

But for a time, the more progressive people of the Philippines donned Leni’s signature pink and supported her as ferociously as they could. If there is one thing that sets apart a Filipino campaign from an American one, it’s the Broadway-meets-Drag Race-like spectacle of elections. Pop stars make hits endorsing their favorite candidates and perform at arenas with dance routines featuring drag performers and child tumblers join them on stage. The candidates gesticulate wildly on stage and shout out to the waving and cheering audiences. These do not mirror the pomp and circumstance tinged with scathing back-and-forth accusations that seem to besmirch American election cycles.

Yet, while Robredo, who started a nonprofit the day after her tremendous upset to Marcos says that the last several years have been a hellscape, Ressa remains more balanced in her assessment of the situation. “I hate to say it, but you have to have faith no matter [what the result] is.” She points to data that illustrates falling crime rates (also suggesting that there is a possibility the metrics themselves may also be skewed.) She laments the state of disinformation and especially, transformative artificial intelligence capabilities. 

“Disinformation spreads six times as fast as anger and facts,” she states, referencing a 2019 study from MIT. 

When the audience is invited to ask questions of the filmmaker and the documentary subjects, several Filipinos express gratitude towards Robredo and Ressa, some of them even detailing the poor conditions from where they came. One woman approaches the microphone with a shaky voice and tears in her eyes, talking about her cousin who has been arrested for his alleged ties to the drug trade. Their family does not know whether he is alive or dead. 

Robredo explains to those in the audience that these kidnappings are a frequent occurrence in their country, especially under the regime of Marcos, who seeks to eradicate drug offenders and punish their families. She says she was actually notified via text message that her term as vice president was being ended for her stance against the war on drugs in the country. 

A doctor sitting in the front row addresses Ressa, saying that she feels the “mainstream media” is not on the side of the medical profession, and after hearing her question, the internationally acclaimed journalist pontificates. She believes that the mainstream media is no longer the “gatekeeper of truth and facts that it once was,” attributing the rise of social media as a culprit behind a chaotic misinformation ecosystem. Paraphrasing George Orwell, she says, “We are literally entertaining ourselves to death.”

At one point, Ressa warns, “This year, half of the world [population] is voting, and if you don’t act as a citizen… well, the world is relying on you.”

Stream And So It Begins and other online Sundance films here.

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