In September 2017, there was a one-woman show entitled "Tao Po" debuted at the CCP. It was a series of monologues performed by actress and activist Mae Paner (also known as Juana Change). The script was written by playwright Maynard Manansala based on interviews he and Paner had conducted. It aimed to "provide a human face to the issue of extra-judicial killings (EJK)." Since then, it had been staged in various local universities, and also abroad to Europe in 2019. This 2021 film preserves the show for posterity, directed by Paner herself.
In the first monologue, Paner took on the persona of a veteran photojournalist Raffy Lerma, who had been assigned the EJK beat. His most known photograph dubbed "Pieta," with a woman slumped on the sidewalk cradling the bloodied body of her dead husband in her arms, became famous not only in local but international news. This was the only monologue which was delivered in English, while a slideshow of haunting photographs flashed in the background.
The second monologue was about Rosing, a Zumba instructor whose husband Marcelo and son Jojo had both been gunned down as drug addicts. In alternating settings indicated by the changes in lighting, Rosing shifted back and forth from her lively Zumba spiels to the somber story of the night of their death, This was probably the most exhausting of the monologues, as Paner was doing calisthenics to music practically the whole time.
The third monologue may be the grimmest one of all. Paner assumed the character of a nameless policeman assigned to conduct EJKs. He was nervous about blood as a child. But with his first kill and the ones that followed in quick succession, he told about how he developed into the cold-blooded murderer that he was now. He did wonder out loud about why it seemed that all the people whom he killed were poor, no big rich fish among them.
The fourth monologue was about Vanessa, a teenage girl who wanted to light candles for them at the gravesite of her parents. They were buried together in one cramped vault in one wall in the cemetery after they were shot and killed by policemen in their home, in her presence. As it turned out, she knew practically everyone buried on that wall, all of them victims of EJK. By the end of her reminiscences, the wall was full of candles.
Each monologue was only about 15 minutes or so, but the substance and drama in each one is not limited. They were written by Manansala with gritty realism, covering all the pertinent details and issues for each character.
Mae Paner gave respectful and nuanced portrayals of each of her four distinct characters. There were no hardsell political grandstanding here, just sad stories of real people who saw the horrors of EJK up close.
The filmed version of "Tao Po" premiered as one of the featured films in this year's Cinemalaya film festival. It will be shown on the KTX platform September 3-5.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."