How “Call Her Ganda” Might Just Be The Most Important Flick To Come Out Of Philippine-American Cinema In Recent Years
Making its world premier at the Tribeca Film Festival is Call Her Ganda, a documentary by Filipino-American director PJ Raval. The story behind the film made for a splashy turn in our 2014 dailies, and it involved a clean-cut marine named Joseph Scott Pemberton and a transgender woman, Jennifer Laude. Pemberton is from Massachusetts—he’s more whitebread than a Wonder loaf, and his smirk should be in a J. Crew advertisement. Jennifer Laude was born Jeffrey Laude, and came from Olongapo—a city renowned for its US naval facility and red-light district. They meet in a bar called Ambyanz. There’s an immediate attraction; there’s a trip to a hotel. You know the rest. Of all of Pemberton’s statements about the incident, the one most indicative of his rank, status and education is something he tells a fellow marine: “I think I killed a he-she.” And not just any he-she, a Filipina one, which opens the case to two injured demographics: the LGBTQ community, and anti-American factions in the Philippines (of which there are many).
Call Her Ganda tells the story of the incident and the events that follow. Specifically, it follows the stories of three women: Jennifer’s mother Julita, investigative transgender reporter Meredith Talusan whose writing on the case appears in VICE, The Guardian and Buzzfeed, and Attorney Virginia Suarez, an activist-lawyer whose goal is to make the truth known as Pemberton is tried inside the courtroom.
The film was directed by PJ Raval, A Fil-Am director whose prior work had already been recognized in LGBTQ circles, but whose Filipino heritage remained a big question mark—not just to people from his circle, but to himself. In 2014, the same year as the Pemberton-Laude case, Raval was invited to Manila for screenings of his other two documentary films, Trinidad and Before You Know it.
Raval arrived amid the frenzy of the Pemberton case, anti-American sentiment, and outrage from the queer community. “I’ve always wanted to make a film set in the Philippines,” he says, “and having the opportunity to tell the story of Jennifer Laude and those who worked tirelessly to seek justice for her death not only spoke to me as a queer person of color, but also as a Filipino-American.”
For other people involved in the film like producer Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, this documentary is more than the story of Jennifer’s murder. It’s about decades of discrimination against the LGBTQ community. It’s also about the inequity in Philippine-American relations. “If all those layers of messaging is overwhelming to our audience, at the very least, I hope the film reminds them of the importance of the basic human values of respect and kindness,” she says. “I hope it also gives the courage to people to speak up when someone, no matter how powerful, tramples on their rights”.
But for every large and sweeping cause, there’s an underlying story. It’s not politically motivated, but it’s just as powerful—if not more so. The documentary is a mother’s chance to fight for her daughter, so that the story reaches a wider and more contemporary audience. Julita “Nanay” Laude is a mother coping with a system that’s let Pemberton off relatively easy—he’s serving a ten-year sentence at most, for homicide, and not the larger crime of murder.
Imagine returning to the crime scene to tell your daughter’s story short years after the fact: your child wrapped in a cheap hotel blanket, head dunked in a toilet bowl, strangle marks around the neck. “The only thing you should flush down a toilet is a cockroach,” she says, as a way of saying that she could never have imagined the same fate for her daughter. Pemberton will be freed in six years—in which time he’ll be young enough to rebuild his life, while the Laudes have to live without Jennifer for the rest of theirs.
Early praise for the documentary have been trickling in, with platforms like the Hollywood Reporter lauding its masterful handling of “complex issues and complicated plot developments with forceful clarity,” and going on to call it both “heartbreaking and inspirational.” Indiewire listed it as one of the best LGBT films to come out of the Tribeca Film Festival this year.
While the documentary is meant to be a protest piece against the violence and discrimination faced by transwomen globally—it’s also a history lesson about U.S. imperialism and its political and social ramifications, especially as it relates to Filipinos here and abroad.
But more than that, and through Nanay Julita’s story, it might also be a way to tell the audience not to call Jennifer a case study in Fil-Am relations, or to make her a mere rallying cry for the LGBTQ community; but to call her Ganda, the name she answered to if you were family or friend, and to feel about her and fight for her as they would.