Pain, frustration, desperate desire for justice

Community Opinion & Analysis May 11, 2018 at 3:58 pm
Jennifer Laude

Jennifer Laude

FILM REVIEW: Call Her Ganda at Hot Docs

By Althea Manasan
The Philippine Reporter

In 2014, a transgender Filipina woman was found brutally murdered in a motel room in Olongapo City. Weeks later, when a U.S. Marine stationed in the port city is accused of the crime, the case is thrust into the international spotlight, igniting outrage and prompting questions about Philippine sovereignty and transgender rights.

Director PJ Raval

Director PJ Raval

PJ Raval’s new documentary Call Her Ganda details the tragic events of Jennifer Laude’s killing and the groundbreaking trial of U.S. Private Joseph Scott Pemberton. However, it also goes beyond the headlines to create a nuanced portrait of a country still bound by the legacy of U.S. colonialism —but also a country that is also now trying to challenge that legacy.

The film follows three people and their intertwining journeys to find justice. Meredith Talusan is a Filipino-American transgender journalist who is digging for the truth about what happened to Laude. Julita, Laude’s mother, grieves for her child while also navigating a system that appears to be stacked against her. By her side is Virgie Suarez, a tenacious lawyer who has taken up the fight for the Laude family and understands the ramifications of the case for U.S.-Philippine relations.

At the crux of the case is the Visiting Forces Agreement, or VFA, which gives the U.S. government jurisdiction over its own military personnel who are accused of committing crimes in the Philippines. Essentially, the film points out, it allows members of the U.S. military to do whatever they want in the country, to whomever they want, while facing minimal consequences.

Nanay Julita

Nanay Julita

It’s just one of the legacies of colonialism in the Philippines — and there are others. Raval, whose previous directorial works have focused on LGBT issues, takes us back to before even U.S. occupation and explains that what we now call transgender people were actually a common part of the native and indigenous culture of the Philippines.

It’s a culture that was wiped out once Catholicism came in from the West, and now rampant violence against the transgender community seems to be one of the disastrous lasting consequences.

“I think part of this film is also just functioning as part of a basic understanding of the Philippines and the story of the Philippines running up to today,” Raval told audiences last week after a screening in Toronto. The film had its international premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Joseph Scott Pemberton

Joseph Scott Pemberton

As Laude’s story unfolds, the film succeeds at providing the much needed cultural and historical context to truly understand the case, especially for audiences not as familiar with the Philippines.

But what gives the film its heart and humanity are Talusan, Julita and Suarez, as well as Laude’s friends, family and the transgender community that is affected by her vicious killing. Their pain, frustration and desperate desire for justice becomes our own.

Even though Pemberton is eventually convicted in Laude’s death (albeit on a lesser charge), the U.S. military refuses to give him up to Philippine custody. Instead of prison, he is held within a U.S. facility at the Philippine military base Camp Aguinaldo, further showcasing the power imbalance between the two nations.

Noticeably absent are any voices from the other side: the U.S. military or people associated with Pemberton. But then again, the point of Call Her Ganda is that we, as Filipinos, should have the right to dictate our own stories, the right to self-determination.

That call for action, and the hope that change is even possible, permeate through the latter part of the film.

“I hope also from the film you get that it’s not over yet,” Raval said. “There’s obviously an evolving history. There’s still a lot of challenges that the country is facing.”

Atty. Virgie Suarez

Atty. Virgie Suarez

Merideth Talusan

Meredith Talusan