“Tao Po,” the one-woman play on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal crackdown on narcotics suspects, opens Sept. 27 in Geneva, host city of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The play, a collection of monologues and documentary stills, stars activist-actress Mae Paner. A talkback after the play features mothers of those slain by police officers. It also includes journalists, human rights defenders and other experts who can help explain an official kill count of 6,000 and an unofficial one triple that number.
The European tour opens a few days after the news website Dateline reported the International Criminal Court’s request for a copy of the documentary, "On The President’s Orders" for possible use as evidence in its preliminary probe into complaints filed by Filipinos.
The documentary focuses on cops based in Caloocan City, ground zero in the first year of Duterte’s campaign. Some scenes show cops justifying the killings of suspects deemed recidivist. The directors also included an audio clip of a senior officer admitting cops were behind many of the killings blamed on vigilantes or feuding crime gangs.
Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said the film “reeks of malice.” James Jones, who co-directs with Olivier Sarbi, urged government officials “to watch the film, engage in debate and understand that people are dying.”
“Tao Po” will play in Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna and London, with religious and human rights organizations sponsoring the shows.
Two mothers, Katherine Bautista and Marissa Lazaro, who will speak at the talkback that always follows the play. Both are members of the faith-based Rise Up for Life and Rights network that champions families seeking justice in Philippine courts and in the ICC.
Nardy Sabino of the Promotion of Church People’s Response, which helped found Rise Up, will also discuss the challenges facing rights defenders.
This tour also includes a photo-installation art exhibit. Portraits of the victims of extrajudicial killings are printed on pieces of clothing and household items.
“Nanlaba” is a pun on “nanlaban,” the trademark police claim that all the thousands killed had fought back.
It loosely translates to laundered tales, a riff on claims that police sometimes just copy-paste reports, one after another. They have also been charged with tampering documents and withholding evidence from the victim’s families.
The law orders police to start an automatic probe everytime a suspect or an officer dies in a sanctioned operation. But it took a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court to force the national police office to submit documents on their probes into the drug war killings.
After months of review, the Center for International Law (Centerlaw) on Sept. 23 asked the Supreme Court to cite Philippine National Police (PNP) officials in contempt. It said more than half of the cases contained in more than 200 discs were not drug-related.
Redemptorist Brother Ciriaco Santiago III represents the Nightcrawlers, a loose network of photojournalists who have made it a mission to document the bloodbath and the lives of the people left behind. The group is now the focus of a National Geographic documentary that is sure to add to Duterte’s pique.
“We do not want our murdered brethren to be forgotten,” Santiago said. “Printing their portraits on everyday clothing gives them faces and honors their lives.”
STRINGS OF HUMANITY
"Tao Po" is a common greeting in Tagalog-speaking regions of the Philippines. It is used on visits to other homes to announce one’s good intentions and gauge the welcome.
Under Duterte, "Tao Po" became a feared phrase, used in the massive roundup of suspects. Law enforcers knocked on doors, inviting people to surrender and register for rehabilitation, or else. Those who refused to heed the call died. Many of those who did also died.
The phrase can be used as an apology—“tao lang po”—the equivalent of “I’m only human.” It is also an appeal to respect other human beings—“tao po ‘yan!”
The one-woman play, which won a Palanca second prize for playwright Maynard Manansala, uses all 3 ways in examining how Filipinos cope with the madness of Duterte’s war.
A photojournalist risks a stable job in refusing to stop his daily night crawls. A police officer gropes to explain what can stump even hardened members of a government death squad.
A widow teaches zumba to support the family; in between dance gyrations and ribald commentary, she carries a reluctant conversation with the ghosts of husband and son. An orphan brings a trove of candles to a city of the dead, still displaying humor as she chats up her slain parents and a host of neighbors and acquaintances buried around them.
“We highlight the strings of humanity that link all Filipinos in these terrible times,” Paner said.
The actress looks forward to meeting not only human rights support groups but also staunch Duterte supporters.
“We have to be true to our call,” she said hours before her Geneva performance.
“I am not worried. I have mentally and emotionally prepared for them. In fact, I am excited to see my better self if and when I get confronted by them. After all, Tao Po is a reminder of our shared humanity.”
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