'Call Her Ganda': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

As suspenseful as it is moving.

PJ Raval's documentary chronicles the legal, political and media firestorm that ensued after the murder of a Filipina transgender woman by an American serviceman.

A video clip of a young woman smiling beautifully for the camera provides the haunting visual centerpiece of PJ Raval's powerful documentary about her death and its aftermath. The film recounts the tale of how Jennifer Laude, a transgender Filipina, was killed by a U.S. marine who was subsequently arrested and put on trial for the crime. Dealing with provocative themes of prejudice, homophobia, colonialism and the arrogance of U.S. military forces abroad, Call Her Ganda recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

The story begins in 2014, when 26-year-old Laude, whose mother, Julita, called her "Ganda" ("beauty" in Tagalog), was found dead in a motel room bathroom, her head submerged in a toilet. She had gone to the room with Joseph Scott Pemberton, a 19-year-old marine on leave who had met the alleged sex worker in a disco. Upon discovering that Jennifer was in fact transgender, Pemberton apparently snapped and brutally killed her.

Figuring prominently in the resulting political, media and legal firestorm are three women: Jennifer's mother, who found herself in the unlikely position of spearheading political protests; Meredith Talusan, a transgender investigative journalist who drew international attention to the case with her articles published by Vice, The Guardian and Buzzfeed, among other outlets; and Virgie Suarez, an activist attorney determined to bring Jennifer's killer to justice despite formidable odds.

The film, which begins with Julita tearfully displaying her slain daughter's bedroom, which has been left as it was when she died, vividly conveys the tumult surrounding the case. We hear a newscaster referring to the victim as "Jeffrey, who dressed like a woman." Pemberton is quoted by a fellow marine as saying, "I think I killed a he/she" when he returned to the base. An activist describes the situation as a "watershed moment in the history of the Filipino trans movement," explaining that most trans people are relegated to working only in the beauty or sex industries. Pemberton's mother tells a journalist that her son has no bias toward transgender people because his sister is a lesbian.

Much of the ensuing controversy revolves around the Visiting Forces Agreement, which dictates that the U.S. government retains jurisdiction over military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines except under special circumstances. Numerous anti-U.S. protests break out during the ensuing trial, the outcome of which won't be revealed here. There is also plenty of sympathy for the accused killer, as illustrated by the numerous hateful tweets shown in the film.

The director supplies much needed context with a short history of the Philippines and its colonization by America, as well as a segment devoted to the election of Rodrigo Duterte as the country's president in 2016 and his subsequent criticisms of the United States' role in the region.

But it's the tragic story of Jennifer's slaying and the search for justice by the three female figures at its center that gives Call Her Ganda its emotional power. Handling its complex issues and complicated plot developments with forceful clarity, the film proves simultaneously heartbreaking and inspirational.

Production: Unraval Pictures, Fork Films, Naked Edge Films
Director: PJ Raval
Screenwriters: PJ Raval, Victoria Chalk
Producers: Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, PJ Raval, Marty Syjuco, Lisa Valencia-Svensson
Executive producers: Jim Butterworth, Daniel J. Chalfen, Abigail Disney, Barbara Dobkin, Gini Reticker
Director of photography: Mike Simpson
Editor: Victoria Chalk
Composers: Nathan Halpern, Chris Ruggiero
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival

98 min.