LAAPFF: Call Her Ganda Sears Through a Century of American Imperialism
Call Her Ganda
P.J. RAVAL (DIRECTOR), MIKE SIMPSON (CINEMATOGRAPHER), VICTORIA CHALK (WRITING CREDIT)
NAOMI FONTANOS, JULITA LAUDE, VIRGINIA LACSA SUAREZ, MEREDITH TALUSAN (CAST)
APRIL 19, 2018 (TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL), MAY 4, 2018 (LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL)
Jennifer Laude was once a young woman living in Olongapo City in the Philippines. She was once a vital part of her mother Julita’s life, the reason Julita had a house of her own. Jennifer once had friends, had a fiancé, had a beautiful smile, and confidence that was unmistakable. Jennifer was once a trans woman who had carved out a life for herself, a life that came to an end on October 11, 2014, inside the hotel room she had entered with an American soldier only a few hours before.
Call Her Ganda is a documentary that chooses to lead with Jennifer’s face, Jennifer’s smile, Jennifer’s impact on the lives of the people who loved her best. It’s a choice that prioritizes her life and what was lost on that October night. It’s also a choice that highlights how little lives like Jennifer’s have been truly valued in Filipino society, and how the fraught history of U.S.-Philippine relations plays into the presence and influence of America in the lives of Filipinos today. Both are complicated, complex topics that aren’t likely to get a full reckoning within a 90-minute documentary, but P.J. Raval does what he can to educate and to reinforce what he does show.
A primer, then: 1898 saw the Philippines declare independence from Spain, after 377 years of colonization. That independence was short-lived, as Spain had actually agreed to cede the country to the United States with the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Spanish-American War. While World War II broke American rule over the Philippines for a few years, the end of the war and the 1947 Military Bases Agreement brought back U.S. soldiers to Philippine shores for full-time residency.
One of the military bases created was Subic Bay, where Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton disembarked after participating in war exercises with his shipmates on October 11, 2014. He met Jennifer Laude in a bar in neighbouring Olongapo City that night. Laude was found dead a few hours later, and Pemberton was charged with her alleged murder.
Call Her Ganda does not shy away from the details of Laude’s murder. There are images of her collapsed body that will haunt viewers, especially after seeing her happy and posing playfully in a beautiful evening gown for an unseen cameraperson. The descriptions of her death are hard to hear, coming from both Jennifer’s mother and the lawyers that represent them both in the case against Pemberton. The sense of injustice is palpable, especially set against the knowledge of Jennifer’s lively personality and impact on her loved ones’ lives.
The Philippines, like many countries, still struggles with the idea and existence of trans people, but Raval is not content to let that lie unchallenged. Journalist Meredith Talusan is a gender non-binary person who speaks with Julita Laude and some of Jennifer’s friends about Jennifer, and the life she had led before her death. They are heartbreaking scenes, as Julita tries to explain her love for her daughter, and Jennifer’s friends describe how they were just trying to live.
A short segment dives into the history of trans people and non-binary people among the babaylan of pre-colonial times. Colonization did a number on us, Raval seems to suggest, clouding our collective memory of people just like Jennifer among our ancestors. It’s a forgetfulness that should be addressed if we want things to be better.
Hand-in-hand with the push forward for LGBTQIA respect and rights within the country is the backlash against another long-established convention: the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States and the Philippines. The VFA was at the heart of the legal battle between the Laude family and Pemberton, as it prevented Pemberton from being charged in a Philippine court and granted immunity for crimes committed in the country. It’s a legal precedent that the Laudes’ lawyers do all they can to knock down, and they do, to an extent: Pemberton is charged and later found guilty of homicide, with a ten-year prison sentence, a step down from the murder charge that they had pursued.
The court proceedings play out as Julita Laude continues to fight for her daughter’s life and death to be respected—the daughter she had always called “ganda” (“beautiful”)—and Talusan follows vigils and protests along the way, documenting them for the world at large. It’s a fight unlike anything the Philippines has seen before, and yet something all too familiar, and the David and Goliath comparisons come too easily. Laude has a family that is willing to fight for her even after death, something many trans Filipinxs don’t have, but should. Each new development hits hard, and Raval spends his precious minutes giving his subjects space to process where he can. It is impossible to walk out of Call Her Ganda without feeling a deep-seated need to do something, change something, tell someone we love them, but it is also impossible not to feel the discomfort and distress that colonialism has continued to perpetrate throughout the world.