NEW YORK — Over the past decade, FRONTLINE, an investigative journalism program of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), has been reporting on the hidden realities facing the low-wage immigrant workers in the U.S., many of them undocumented – from experiencing sexual assault on the job, to being traffic for their labor.
COVID’s Hidden Toll, the latest documentary offered by PBS through FRONTLINE premiered July 23. The film takes viewers into the fields and factories producing America’s food supply, and follows the men and women who’ve been doing that work while many have been sheltering in place to avoid the coronavirus. It is scheduled to be aired again on Thursday July 23 at 3 a.m. EST over WNET and also on July 23, 3 a.m. EST via Thirteen HD channel.
The film was produced by Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel, the team behind Rape in the Fields, Rape on the Night Shift and Trafficked in America. Like those documentaries, COVID’s Hidden Toll blends strong accountability reporting with unforgettable human stories.
To gather those stories as the pandemic spread, Daffodil, the documentary’s correspondent, ventured out to the fields of California, where many of America’s fruits and vegetables are grown. She met workers like Sinthia Hernandez, a broccoli picker who has cancer and diabetes, putting her at higher risk for complications if she contracts COVID-19. Sinthia provides for a household that includes her mother, her children and her two siblings — one of whom is blind and deaf, and another who is quadriplegic.
Sinthia tells Daffodil that her employer isn’t “giving us the essentials to protect ourselves,” but she keeps working because her family depends on her: “In these times, it’s necessity that makes us work despite the fear we have.”
It is a common sentiment heard from people in the film – that having been deemed essential workers, they have to make the daily choice between their health and their jobs, and that in many cases their employers aren’t doing enough to protect them. One worker, who agreed to speak if we concealed his identity, put it this way: “It doesn’t feel like we’re essential workers. It feels like we’re slaves.”
Daffodil and Andrés spent months digging into this story, and reached out to numerous companies as well as experts and officials. Their reporting shows that so far, there are no national mandatory COVID protections specifically for agriculture workers – only voluntary guidelines. Companies don’t have to tell employees about potential infections at their worksites. And new evidence indicates that agricultural workers have faced a heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus.
For the full story, watch COVID’s Hidden Toll. It is supported by Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative from WNET in New York that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America. And it is an urgent and important look at the hidden realities facing the people keeping food on our tables throughout this pandemic.
FRONTLINE produces in-depth documentaries on a variety of domestic and international stories and issues, and broadcasting them on air and online.
Meanwhile, in another development, PBS Distribution has announced the theatrical release on August 7 of A Thousand Cuts — a documentary film from award-winning filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz about journalist Maria Ressa, 2018 TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year. [Ed.’s Note: Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler. She and reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted of cyber libel in June 2020. The case is one of at least 11 court actions that have been filed against her, Rappler or its staff members since Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016.]
Following its theatrical release, PBS Distribution also plans to have the film make its American broadcast debut on FRONTLINE in November 2020. It was previously aired on PBS on June 12, 2020, on the eve of Ressa’s court’s verdict.
A Thousand Cuts offers an inside look at the key players of the Philippine press and the government and the ongoing threat against freedom of the press. [Ed.’s Note: ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV and radio news and entertainment network, was shut down by the National Telecommunications Commission after the network’s license expired.]
The film examines social media disinformation campaigns and the crackdown on the news media in the Philippines by President Rodrigo Duterte – who has made Ressa one of his top targets. At great personal risk, Ressa, the chief executive of the independent news site Rappler has been at the forefront of holding Duterte and his government accountable for their violent war on drugs. In response, Duterte has barred Rappler reporters from the presidential palace, revoked Rappler’s license, and Ressa herself has been charged with cyber libel.
“I can’t be more thrilled to be working with FRONTLINE to launch this film into the world,” says filmmaker Diaz. “A Thousand Cuts comes at a time when journalists are being targeted for doing their jobs and independent media is at risk globally. It’s both a timely and timeless story of abuse of power and people who refuse to be cowed into silence. With its unparalleled work in investigative journalism and its fervor for rolling out timely cinematic documentaries, FRONTLINE is the perfect home for this film.”
“As an admirer of Ramona’s filmmaking — and a believer in Maria’s fight to be an independent journalist in the Philippines — I am so pleased to bring this important documentary to our PBS audience,” says FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath. “Journalism is essential to a strong democracy — a notion that’s at the heart of A Thousand Cuts. We stand with fellow journalists in pursuit of the truth and look forward to sharing this film with our viewers this fall.”
“We are thrilled to be releasing A Thousand Cuts, our third theatrical release with our partners at FRONTLINE,” says Amy Letourneau, Senior Vice President, PBS Distribution. “Ramona’s powerful portrait of Maria Ressa and the importance of a free press is both timely and necessary, and we are honored to bring this remarkable film to a wide audience.”
A Thousand Cuts made its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January and debuted internationally at Hot Docs.
The deal was negotiated by Amy Letourneau of PBS Distribution, Jim Bracciale of FRONTLINE PBS, and Josh Braun and Matt Burke of Submarine and Amanda Lebow of CAA on behalf of Concordia and the filmmakers. (With reports from Roney Aronson-Rath and Anne Husted of FRONTLINE)