PJ Raval's Call Her Ganda and the Murder of Beauty
aGLIFF film explores the intersection of transphobia, imperialism, and poverty
The death of Jennifer Laude is not simply a story of murder. Call Her Ganda, the latest documentary by award-winning local director PJ Raval, is a complicated film that finds itself at the intersection of transphobia, imperialism, and poverty, while simultaneously addressing an age-old tension between America and the Philippines. Now, after two years of filming and a world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in April, Call Her Ganda will be unveiled to local audiences Thursday as the opening night film at this week's All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival (aGLIFF).
Ganda, meaning "beauty" in Tagalog, is a pseudonym for Laude – a nickname bestowed upon her by her mother. Fitting, since it was Laude's mother Julita "Nanay" who inspired Raval to make this film. Call Her Ganda opens in a dark room, just a few rays of sunlight spilling onto the walls, and a woman – Nanay – details her daughter's life. Her eyes glisten. Nanay is "not privileged by any means, but she speaks the truth," said Raval. "She accepts and loves her child, and can't accept her death." That pain, he said, is universal. "As humans, we can all relate to a mother who's lost her child and wants to hold someone accountable for their crimes."
Laude was a vibrant Filipina trans woman living in Olongapo, a coastal city in the Philippines, whose life was cut short in October 2014. Laude's body was found, her head plunged into a motel room toilet, hours after leaving a disco with 19-year-old Joseph Scott Pemberton, a United States Marine on "liberty leave" from the ship on which he was stationed. All evidence points to Pemberton as her killer – brutally strangling Laude and leaving her for dead upon realizing she was trans. Yet, as a U.S. soldier, he was shielded from arrest by local law enforcement, leaving both Laude's family and the country in turmoil as attorneys fought to secure a trial.
Describing Ganda as his most ambitious film to date, Raval said it was challenging to address the intersectionality of "transphobia, militarism, and colonization" because "people are quick to minimize this story, reduce it to just one thing, but you can't." Raval, whose parents were born in the Philippines, acts as an invisible fly on the wall – capturing close-up tears and breathtaking wide-lens views of the country – to document the fallout of Laude's murder and subsequent trial. In doing so, the story uncovers the fraught relationship between the two countries with poignant history lessons peppered throughout. As Raval explained, "There are various barriers facing poor people of color, trans folks – and it's hard to understand what to do without understanding how we got here."
The filmmaker was introduced to Laude's story in December 2014, less than two months after her murder, while screening his previous films in Manila. Raval was invited to be on a LGBTQ rights panel along with Virgie Suarez, the attorney representing Laude's family pro bono. There someone suggested Raval turn what was happening – a city in uproar over Laude's killer getting away with murder because she was trans and he was American – into a film.
"At first I said no – someone here should make it, maybe a trans activist," admitted Raval. But the more he thought about it, and the more he discussed the idea with his partner and friends, the more his mind changed. He remembered thinking: "Me being Filipino-American – maybe I'm the one who needs to see the film." By early 2015, just as Pemberton's trial was starting, Raval was back in the Philippines where he joined forces with award-winning journalist Meredith Talusan. It's Talusan, a Filipina-American trans woman, who becomes Ganda's narrator, and one of several women at the film's core fighting for justice (for Laude, for trans rights, for the Philippines).
And while true crime whodunits are having their day in the sun, Raval said pointedly, Call Her Ganda is not that kind of story. "There's not a question in my mind that [Pemberton] is guilty. That's not the interesting question." What's interesting, he said, is whether or not Nanay, Suarez, and Talusan will get the accountability they've spent years fighting for. "It's why I focused on the women – their stories are the ones we don't hear about."
Like many documentaries, Ganda ends on a cliffhanger; Pemberton's case remains unresolved. The decision to call "cut" didn't come easily, but Raval said his goal was to get the film out quickly to help inspire people to support efforts to hold Pemberton and the U.S. accountable. Already, he's witnessed a "visible impact" on audiences. People are asking how to help and, following the Tribeca premiere, the Ganda team organized a team of lawyers, activists, and thought-leaders to brainstorm how the film could have a measurable impact. As for the aGLIFF screening, Raval's excited to show people these are the types of films coming out of Austin. He concluded, "This experience has been really transformative for me. Not only as queer Filipino-American, but also as a filmmaker. ... These are the stories that need to be told."
Call Her Ganda, Thursday, Sept. 6, 6:30pm, Alamo South Lamar