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Covering Duterte, coming home, singing songs

Maria Ressa in "A Thousand Cuts."
Maria Ressa in "A Thousand Cuts."PBS Distribution and Frontline

Once upon a time, countries suffering under despotic regimes looked to the United States for a model of a just democracy. Now it seems like the United States is modeling itself after despotic regimes. One of those, according to Ramona S. Diaz’s suspenseful and depressing “A Thousand Cuts,” is the Philippines, whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, was elected in 2016 with the promise of eliminating the country’s drug problem by killing all the users and dealers. True to his word, he has since had thousands cut down in the street, almost all of them poor people.

Duterte has also tried to quash all opposition, especially the press. Diaz focuses on Maria Ressa, the heroic founder and CEO of the independent news site the Rappler, who was named Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year. She has doggedly exposed the tragic cost and ineffectiveness of the extra-judicial killings. She has also exposed the network of online misinformation, threats, and harassment the regime has promulgated and has called out Duterte on his lies, misogyny, bullying, and suppression of dissent.

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Diaz follows Ressa and her staff as they pursue the truth at increasing risk to their lives. In one suspenseful sequence, Ressa is arrested at the airport. She is released on bail, but the event bodes ill. In another poignant scene a grandmotherly woman confronts Ressa at a panel discussion. Since the woman is not a drug addict or a journalist, why should she care? Ressa quotes German dissident Martin Niemöller’s famous assessment of the Third Reich that begins “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out. . . .” Then Ressa offers her version: “First they came for the journalists, and we don’t know what happened after that.”

The film’s epilogue states that a Philippine court convicted Ressa of “cyber libel” on June 15 and sentenced her to six years in prison. She has appealed the conviction, but she has seven more cases pending.

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“A Thousand Cuts” is available online via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room beginning Aug. 7. It will be broadcast on PBS’s “Frontline.” in January.

Go to coolidge.org/films/thousand-cuts.

Joey (left) and Isaac Eisch with their father, Brian Eisch, before his return to Afghanistan from leave.
Joey (left) and Isaac Eisch with their father, Brian Eisch, before his return to Afghanistan from leave.Marcus Yam/Marcus Yam/New York Times/Netflix 2020

War and peace

Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis’s engrossing and heart-wrenching “Father Soldier Son” begins in 2010, when Brian Eisch, a single father of two young sons, returns home for a two-week furlough from the front lines in Afghanistan. His boys hug him joyously and tease him about the tautness of his abs as they hug him. He looks like the ideal soldier, with chiseled features and rippling muscles. When he leaves, he admonishes his younger son not to cry. During his long absences they stay with their uncle’s family and the arrangement seems to work, until Eisch’s unit is ambushed and he suffers a grievous leg wound.

He comes back home for good, but he is not the same. He suffers chronic pain and is frustrated about his physical limitations. Without the structure of the Army and his identity as a soldier, he feels lost.

The wound refuses to heal, and his leg is amputated. After agonizing rehab, he is fitted with a prosthesis, but it doesn’t work properly. Years of pain, frustration, and depression follow, and Eisch grows short-tempered and reclusive, spending hours playing video games. His sons are bewildered by the changes in their father, but still have faith in him. Things do get better, as Eisch gets a new prosthesis and meets a woman who loves him.

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But then they get worse.

Shot over the course of 10 years, the film shows lives as they are lived, with abrupt changes, uncertain outcomes, and surprising twists. It reveals the complexity and heroism of ordinary people, and the bitter price some veterans must pay for their service. Like Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” (2014), Einhorn and Davis’s film evokes the passage of time, but with the keen pathos of the real thing.

“Father Solder Son” can be seen on Netflix.

Go to www.netflix.com/title/81002464.

Gordon Lightfoot, circa 1974.
Gordon Lightfoot, circa 1974.Michael Ochs Archives

Before and after ‘Sundown'

At the beginning of Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni’s “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” the subject — gaunt, wizened, and 80 — watches a clip of his younger self performing his 1966 song “For Lovin’ Me.” With increasing annoyance, he criticizes the misogyny of some of the lyrics. Finally, he demands that it be turned off. “I hate that [expletive] song,” he growls.

There are few negative words said about Lightfoot in the film, and they are all from Lightfoot. But there are plenty of encomia from a disparate cast of admirers that includes Sarah McLachlan, Steve Earle, Ronnie Hawkins, and, I suppose because he’s such a big fan, Alec Baldwin.

One of the interviewees claims that Lightfoot is the greatest Canadian songwriter ever, which might be extreme when you consider Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. But then those two paid Lightfoot the compliment of covering some of his songs, joining the company of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand, Peter Paul and Mary, Harry Belafonte, Glen Campbell, and Eric Clapton. Frank Sinatra, however, refused to record “If You Could Read My Mind.” “He threw the music on the floor!” recalls a bemused Lightfoot.

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That’s one of many entertaining anecdotes that come up in the film as it covers a career of 60-plus years during which Lightfoot sold 10 million albums and was nominated for five Grammys. A new album is coming out this year, as well as a 40-concert tour, though some dates are postponed because of COVID-19. And during that time, he has done some hard living, including a bout with alcoholism, three marriages, six children, and many rocky relationships. “I regret a lot of things,” he says. “I caused emotional trauma . . . especially with some women.”

If, like Lightfoot, “For Lovin’ Me” is not to your liking, there are clips of many other songs, including my favorite, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” written and recorded after Lightfoot read about the 1975 sinking of the ore carrier in Lake Superior. Sung in Lightfoot’s mellifluous baritone, the lyrics that begin “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down/Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee” are still haunting.

“Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room beginning on July 31.

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Go to coolidge.org.