In PJ Raval’s riveting new film “Call Her Ganda,” there is little doubt left as to whether U.S. Lance Corporal Joseph Pemberton brutally murdered Jennifer Laude in the Philippines on the night of October 11, 2014, but even if his guilt is never in doubt, there are questions abound regarding the actions of the 19-year-old Marine stationed in Olangapo City. Laude’s legal team, led by the fiery Virgie Suarez, can’t approach the case as a typical murder trial, not only due to the international attention the murder has received, but because Pemberton’s status as an American soldier creates jurisdictional issues in a country that may have declared its independence as a republic in 1946, but isn’t far removed from colonial rule to this day, and for their part, the defense soft-pedals the question of whether what he did was actually a crime, alleged to have killed the 26-year-old Laude after taking her back to a hotel and discovering she was a trans woman.
While the legal situation is undeniably compelling, Raval, who’s long shown a gift for conveying larger social struggles for the LGBTQ community through a distinctly personal lens in films such as “Trinidad” and “Before You Know It,” makes sure to never lose sight of all the people affected by the loss of Laude, from her mother Nanay Julita, who tries to reconcile her memories of her daughter with who she is made out to be as she becomes an icon, to her friends who continue to lead the same dangerous life on the streets as she did, to Meredith Talusan, an Filipino-American journalist who finds parallels to Laude’s story with her own and becomes committed to bringing the world’s attention to her murder.
On one hand, Raval finds a ticking-clock thriller in the Philippines where Suarez and her team are given a year to proceed to a trial for Pemberton before he is returned to American custody where he’ll most likely be released, an outcome that looks ever more likely as both the U.S. and Filipino government throw up roadblocks to delay the Laude family from having their day in court, and on the other, he skillfully weaves in the decades of Filipino history through newsreels and other cultural artifacts that gives context to just what Suarez is up against, between the American forces that never really gave up their authority in the country after their occupation ended in 1946 and the Philippines’ conditioning of its citizenry to think of the LGBTQ community as a lesser class saying back to the days of Mesopotamia.
Both a tragedy and a galvanizing call to arms, “Call Her Ganda” is currently taking the festival circuit by storm following an emotional premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and before it debuts at the Los Angeles Asian-Pacific Film Festival, Raval, Suarez and Naomi Fontanos, a trans activist who appears in the film, spoke about doing justice to Laude’s memory and to a complex legal case.
PJ, at the premiere, you credited attending an event where Virgie was with inspiring you to make the film. What happened there?
PJ Raval: I was on the panel [where] Virgie showed the clip of Nanay and it was really moving, and at the panel, someone from Sweden who had just seen my films said, “I think you should choose this as the subject for your next film.” Then afterwards, a couple people came up to me and they were like, “Is this going to be your new film?” I have to give a lot of credit to my partner because we were walking from the theater to go get lunch [with Virgie] and I was [saying to my partner], “I’d love to make this into my next film, but I don’t know if I’m the right person to do it.” And he [said], “Well, I think you should be open to it.” He was very good about encouraging me, and [asked], “Well, what are your hesitations?” And I said, “My hesitation is I don’t want to be coming from the outside and just impose my point of view and say here I am and this is how the film’s going to be.” Then he reminded me, “You make nonfiction films that are character-based, so if you base it off of the subjects and you let them tell their stories, then it won’t be you imposing your point of view.” So we went to lunch and I kept asking Virgie question after question…
Virgie Suarez: It was a long lunch. [laughs]
PJ Raval: And I said [to her], “If the camera were to start filming this, would [you be open to it?]” And she said, “Well, come back [to the Philippines] and we’ll talk some more.” That’s how it started. And then really maybe a day or two in was when we interviewed [Naomi]…
Naomi Fontanos: Oh God, I didn’t know that.
PJ Raval: Yeah, it was pretty early on.
Naomi Fontanos: What was the point where you decided I want to do this?
PJ Raval: It was after that lunch. I really thought this is my opportunity to learn more about my culture, and to be able to also use my resources in the United States [to tell this story]. I also have to give credit Anne Del Castillo, a friend of mine who has actually done some work with [the Filipino-American filmmaker] Ramona Diaz. When I got back to the United States, I called [Anne] and said, “I have this new film idea. Am I crazy to do it? And she said, “Not only you should do it, but you need to do it. Because no one else will make this film and no one in the Philippines will be able to make this film. You have the ability, you have the resources and the team to do this. You need to do it.” So I decided to go back and the very first thing I did was I had another lunch with Virgie [where] we talked about everything and then the next day, I brought a whole crew with me and we just started filming right away.
When you decide to participate, is there something important for you to get across?
Virgie Suarez: Immediately after our talk, I said “Yes, I believe this must be documented because this is a very important case.” This involves a trans woman and a U.S. Marine soldier and immediately, [you can see] the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines reflected in this particular case. There are many violations committed by the U.S. soldiers during the entire time they [have been] present in the Philippines. Not much has been documented about that — a U.S. Marine soldier had already been involved in the previous rape case, but in the end, it was settled, so this was the second time that a case became sensationalized and actually a charge was filed against a U.S. soldier. So it is very important to me that this entire case be known to the public.
But I remember the first time that the media interviewed me, they were so concerned about the killing and I told [them], I don’t think you can ever help in this case if you are simply concerned with the killing because it’s more than the killing. There’s discrimination, there is hate, there are sovereignty issues. At least try to know first all of these security agreements that have been entered into because this will definitely play into this particular case — the interconnection between the Mutual Defense Treaty, the Visiting Forces Agreement – [so I said] it’s upon the initiative of the media. We had like “History 101” of the several secret agreements entered into by the U.S. and the Philippines [before the trial started] because I think it is important that the media knows all these things when they represent the case before the public.
Naomi Fontanos: Yeah, being part of the trans movement in the Philippines, when Jennifer was killed, we instantly knew that her murder was going to surface the various issues that trans people like me and her face in our daily lives, so it was very important for us to be at the forefront of this fight because it could’ve been easily downplayed. A lot of people were surfacing [other] issues like the Philippines’ foreign policy and its relationship with the U.S. and of course, I completely get that and these issues intersect because we lead intersectional lives, but at the very core of this murder is gender-based violence. So it was very important that trans people were involved and that our voices were heard and that there is actually a growing movement, fighting for the rights of trans people in the country. That movement is also working with other social justice movements, fighting for various human rights issues and when Jennifer was killed, her death galvanized actors in various social movements to come together. It was so amazing because that kind of energy hasn’t been seen in a long time. Trans people in the Philippines are usually ignored. When somebody trans dies, even if the death is very brutal, nobody pays any attention. But this time because a U.S. Marine was involved, it’s like people’s imaginations were piqued, like this is a fight that’s bigger than us, so we have to get involved. We have to fight for Jennifer Laude and get justice for her.
One of my favorite things about the film is how you place the event of Jennifer’s murder into a grander historical context, with newsreels from the past showing the attitude of the U.S. military towards the Philippines, as well as the Philippines’ own marginalization of the the trans community going back to the Babylonian Chronicles, which first diminished trans people and relegated generations since to sex work when other jobs weren’t made available. What was it like to figure out how to show that history?
PJ Raval: One of the first things I knew I had to do was just some basic research because part of the reason why I wanted to make the film was that I recognized having grown up in the U.S. and being educated in the public school system in the U.S., I had learned nothing about the Philippines other than there was a Miss Universe that was won…
Naomi Fontanos: That makes me so angry. [laughs]
PJ Raval: Yeah, really if you look at a history book in the United States, the Philippines has a paragraph, and there is a century’s worth of history here. So one of the first things I did was to start working with Dr. Martin Manalansan, a scholar who wrote this amazing book called “Global Divas.” He gave me a reading list to have some historical context for what we were talking about and then also to show what Naomi said, which is that Jennifer’s death is a result of this continued imperialism, I wanted to create this film with the idea that you’d understand her death and the act of violence from Pemberton is a continuation of this lineage, so I started working with Erin Chisholm, an amazing visual researcher based in Toronto. I wanted to almost recreate [the experience of] if you were a new [military] recruit going to the Philippines, what would you learn? What is the information available to you? What is the culture for these Marines entering? So that is how I found these newsreels [because] this is what the Navy would show, this is what the Air Force would show…
Naomi Fontanos: Which is also propaganda.
PJ Raval: And it’s crazy. People would ask me, like where did you find these? And I’m like, “These are actually military issue reels.”
What was the premiere like for you?
PJ Raval: What’s been great is just as a physical event, this is the first time some people are meeting each other. We’ve been making this film in the United States and the Philippines — the very first thing I knew I needed to do was find a really strong producer that was on the ground [in the Philippines], so that was Kara Magasnoc-Alikpala, who came recommended to me through several friends and she became instrumental in helping me establish a local crew, and then Marty Syjuco, who was born in the Philippines, but raised in North America, came on next. And one of the producers is from Toronto, so it’s really been an international production, and it was really great to just get everyone in the room physically at the same time, not over e-mail and text messages.
Naomi Fontanos: I love watching movies. I grew up on Hollywood movies and I also like Filipino movies, so when I saw the movie for the first time, I really felt it was very well-made and it’s something that I’m very proud to be attached to. But of course, it doesn’t entirely capture everything because there were so many things going on. For example, the fact that even when there was pressure from many groups demanding the sitting president to show up at Jennifer’s funeral, you don’t see that, and the shift in how the media was treating this story, because the first time Jennifer’s story was told, she was actually labeled as a gay man and not as a trans woman. But the trans people on social media said, “No, this is the case of a transgender woman being murdered,” so the media was pressured to start using the word “transgender” and that’s a cultural shift for the Philippines because even if people in the Philippines are used to saying LGBTQ, the perception is still that trans women are extreme cases of being gay, and the understanding certainly has shifted because of Jennifer’s case. But as someone who is proudly feminist, I’m so happy that the people who are at the center of this film are strong and fierce women. Not many films are made with strong women’s voices and this particular film does it very, very well.
PJ Raval: That was something that was very clear to me [from the start], and what’s been nice is that some of the reception we’ve gotten is the fact that the producing team is all Filipino and largely queer. I’ve had a lot of younger filmmakers come up to me and say, “Well, this is really amazing seeing this because we hear about how we should be making these efforts to think about who tells who’s story and here’s an example where it was a conscious effort and there’s a really great result from that.” So I take that as a really nice compliment.
Naomi Fontanos: At the same time, it also shows how vibrant the human rights movement is in the Philippines, and I didn’t expect that the movie would spill over to the Duterte administration. I’m so happy that PJ decided to spotlight the human rights situation in the country [currently] and how even up to this time, there are so many human rights violations going on. It really exposes the truth about Duterte and his macho posturing and how his misogyny and his sexism and his illogical foreign policy still impacts this case. Something [else that isn’t] in the film is that the reason why Duterte made a donation to the Laude family was in reaction to the fact that the former president refused to go to the Laude funeral, so he’s a very reactionary president. During the election, he was projecting this image of starting a revolution and it was like, “What revolution is he talking about?” The people’s revolution should come from the people.
Virgie Suarez: It should not come from the president. It’s a revolution against us, against the Filipino people. [For me,] watching the film as a whole gave me a different experience. It gives me all the memories of the trial, of living with the family and all these moments I have with Nanay. Honestly, I am a mother too of four girls and I felt for Nanay
the pain of losing a daughter brutally, at that, because I can imagine myself losing my daughters. There is this particular incident that I cannot forget, when I presented Nanay inside the court [for the first time during the trial]. Everyone is speaking English and Nanay couldn’t not understand and I feel for her [because] it’s about her daughter’s case and she could not understand. So I was there explaining to Nanay [everything that happened] and I made this motion for the judge to speak in Tagalog, and that I be allowed to talk to Nanay in Tagalog because that is the language that is known to her. For me, she can only bring out all her emotions if she speaks in the language that is comfortable to her, so that in [her] statement [to the court], she said “Jennifer is a part of her blood and flesh and that when she lost Jennifer forever, her life will be incomplete.”
To be able to insure that damages would be awarded to her, I had to ask the question how much he would quantify the damage in court and [when] she returned to me the question, [I remember] looking at the opposing counsel as she [asked in Tagalog], “If your daughter or son is killed, how much would you want to be paid?” The entire court was silenced. And that was really something. In fact, that left everyone in the court in tears because the prosecutors were also parents. They had children. After that, everyone felt for Nanay. In fact, when the opposing counsels were asked to cross-examine Nanay, they were not able to cross-examine Nanay and when I asked why, the other counsel said, “Virgie, we did not know how to answer that kind of question.” So the judge simply had to make a recess to finish that because everyone was catatonic. That I cannot forget.
I have to mention that also prior to my presentation to Nanay, the opposing counsel [objected to her testimony, arguing that] Nanay felt sad when her daughter was killed and I completely opposed that [because] when your son or daughter is killed, would you just feel sad? No one can ever state the kind of unspeakable pain that a mother feels except Nanay, so do not tell me that I should not be presenting Nanay before this court. I was allowed, despite the objection of the opposing counsel, but after that, I became even more resolved in fighting this case because this time, I am fighting this as a woman, I am fighting this as a mother and I am fighting this as a Filipino. After that, I said, I should win this case. And I’m happy that all throughout this trial, many people [from] many sectors, especially the trans [community], were so active. I’ve never seen a case where they were that active, but in this particular case, they were really there at the forefront, so seeing the movie for the first time, I remember all these things and it’s an entirely different experience in a theater on a big screen.
“Call Her Ganda” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Los Angeles Asian-Pacific Film Festival on May 4th at 7 pm at the AMC Sunset 5 and Hot Docs in Toronto on May 6th at 5:45 pm at the Scotiabank 3. A full list of future screenings is here.