Following one of the most gut-wrenching events in the history of the Filipino trans movement, Call Her Ganda is a staggering and thought-provoking documentary on the epidemic of violence against LGBTQ people. Part-chronicle, part-tribute, the film is ushered by three central female figures who take on a seemingly never-ending and irremediable quest for justice. Having premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, PJ Raval’s riveting exploration also leaves a powerful mark on this year’s Outfest edition.
Jennifer Laude was a twenty-six-year-old transgender woman from the Philippines who died at the hands of a US Marine. Warm, caring and giving, Jennifer did not have a normal childhood and grew up in a bigoted, oppressive environment where she always feared for her safety. As a young adult, she used most of the money she made to help out her mother and make generous loans to her community. Her parent, Julita, called her spirited, peppy daughter Ganda (which stands for “beauty”), as the little girl would always playfully talk about how pretty she was.
After she grew up, Jennifer became a sex worker. In one of her nights on the job, she was taken to a motel by a nineteen-year-old American serviceman named Joseph Scott Pemberton. The man brutally killed her by submerging her head in the toilet of the motel’s bathroom. After being apprehended, the accused murderer received plenty of sympathy from media figures, law enforcement officers and the general public. In response, three brave women took it on themselves to help bring justice to Jennifer’s ghastly death. One of them was Meredith Talusan, a trans journalist who brought the case in the media’s spotlight by publishing articles (including for The Guardian and Vice) about her untimely passing and its circumstances. Another was Virgie Suarez, a devoted attorney who relentlessly fought for Laude’s attacker to receive legal punishment. Lastly, the young woman’s mother was the leading figure behind several political protests, ensuring that her voice is heard and that her daughter’s tragic demise is not overlooked.
The innocent image of Jennifer smiling lovingly at the camera permeates the entire documentary, serving as a constant reminder of how the good are oppressed and those with unhinged hatred in their hearts are left to roam freely. The absence of another kind soul from the world and the sheer indifference to a shocking number of similar violations prompted a rise from the public. Unfortunately, it was not the public at large, but a dedicated group of LGBTQ individuals and allies who openly mourned Jennifer’s loss and rioted for justice to be served. Only a handful of media-recognized figures stood up to the atrocity, but it was enough to spur a movement that, in its allegiance, managed to obtain a conviction. Albeit a reduced, hard-fought and long overdue verdict, Pemberton was eventually sentenced for homicide after years of trial.
This ruling represented a critical juncture for the trans community of the Philippines, as for over a century not a single United States soldier was ever convicted for reported harassment, murder and rape. Although this was by far not the first care of abuse of trans Filipinas by American servicemen, these officers were consistently assigned immunity under the region’s Visiting Forces Agreement. This blatant favoritism sparked up a genuine controversy on a political and social level in the aftermath of Jennifer’s death, drawing attention to institutional violence, colonialism and how transphobia still operates in the court of law. Raval also includes a relevant segment on the historical colonization of the Philippines and adopts a critical look regarding the United States’ political influence and its residual effects in the country.
The documentary does not only showcase the search for justice, but also the prejudice, hatred and undertones of bigotry that prevent it from coming to an end. The initial response to Jennifer’s murder is appalling and Raval does not shy away from exposing it in its raw form. Many bystanders blamed the victim and attributed her fate to her “lying” about being cisgender. Others claimed it was her choice to become a sex worker and that warranted her death. A news reporter mentioned her as “Jeffrey, who dressed like a woman” and many other groups publicly ridiculed her tragic death. Although Jennifer’s sex worker status is debated by some, the film also touches upon the issue of limited career options for transgender individuals (aside from the sex and beauty industry).
Raval conducts a critical examination of the United States’ persistent entitlement over the people of the Philippines and the brunt of years of colonialism and corruption. Albeit a film with an aggressive and active political message, Call Her Ganda’s strength ultimately lies in its emotional impact. Looking at both systemic inequality and individual cases of human rights violations, the film documents an important historic milestone for outcast, gender non-conforming Filipinos, but also for the LGBTQ community as a whole.