A Filipino Documentary Premieres at New York's Tribeca Film Festival
In 2014, when Filipino-American director PJ Raval revisited the Philippines for the first time since his childhood, the news of the day was not happy—outrage over the death of transgender woman Jennifer Laude.
The incident had taken place in October, two months before Raval’s arrival, and the prime suspect was 19-year-old Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton of the U.S. Marines. The murder trial against Pemberton was well underway when Raval was introduced to Attorney Virginia Suarez, who was representing the Laude family. Suarez showed Raval a clip of the victim’s mother, “Nanay,” demanding the justice that her child deserved even in death.
Julita "Nanay" Laude holds a photo of her daughter Jennifer
The tragic story called for a documentary. At the right place at the right time, Raval was in the perfect position to take the lead, having directed films recognized in the LGBTQ community. Raval focused the cameras on three inspiring women central to the case: Virginia Suarez, Julita “Nanay” Laude, and transgender investigative journalist Meredith Talusan.
Four years later, the film is ready to share this story with the world. Together with producers Marty Syjuco, Lisa Valencia-Svensson, and Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, and executive producers Daniel Chalfen, Jim Butterworth, and Jean Tsien, the documentary titled Call Her Ganda will have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 19.
Raval says the film is as relevant now as it was in 2014. Town&Country spoke to Raval just days before the premiere:
The incident happened in 2014. Why do you think it’s still an important story to tell now, four years after?
For anyone who watches the documentary, it’s clear the court case is still very much unresolved. Audiences not only need to be aware of the current situation, but it’s also crucial that anyone who wishes to see the outcome change gets involved now and demands action. We hope this film not only shows the ongoing relevance of the events that took place but also makes people aware of the events that continue to take place.
As we all know, we are living in such dire times that we can’t afford to have issues overshadowed by more recent news stories. We can’t afford to become complacent for lack of action. Raising awareness is not enough, we need to be proactive if we want to see change.
The documentary is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Given that the film involves a U.S. Marine, was this a statement to screen it in the U.S. or just coincidence?
Call Her Ganda is a protest against the extreme violence and discrimination that transwomen face around the globe. It is a tribute to the 3.4 million Filipinos living in the U.S. and the diaspora. And, it is a lesson for a global audience largely ignorant of the legacy of U.S. imperialism in my country of origin. As a Filipino American growing up in the U.S., where my history and identity have remained largely invisible, I am well aware of the devastating lack of knowledge about my homeland and its colonization. Relegated to the footnotes and margins of the history books, the Philippines has been unduly overlooked and vastly misunderstood. In making this film, I seek to educate the wider public, while also furthering my own knowledge of my cultural heritage.
On working with the three women, Raval notes in a statement:
Inspired by my first encounters with Nanay and Attorney Virgie Suarez, I initially intended to follow just them for my documentary. I was riveted by Nanay when she spoke of her daughter and about seeking justice for her death, and Virgie impressed me with her sharp legal skills, which matched her passion for cultural and policy change. However, after becoming aware of investigative reporter Meredith Talusan, it became clear to me that following Meredith would parallel my own investigative journey. Meredith would not only be able to ask the larger questions, but she’d be able to view the unfolding events from a unique perspective—having been born in the Philippines yet currently living in the U.S., and also being transgender. Meredith would be the perfect narrator to contextualize the cultural differences between the Philippines and the U.S. and to pinpoint the relevance and historical importance of the unfolding events.
What message does the film wish to impart to those outside of the LGBTQ community?
Any pursuit of justice for Jennifer Laude's death would not have been possible if it weren't for the combined efforts of various activist community groups including trans rights activists, LGBTQ activists, women's rights groups, and anti-US imperialists groups, to name a few. If anything, I hope this film shows the need to have marginalized groups to support one another. Racism, sexism, overlooked immigrant rights, gender-based violence, discrimination–these are all examples of issues that affect us all regardless of what community you identify with. As Naomi Fontanos, one of the trans activists featured in the film, so eloquently says, "The fight for human rights for the trans community is a fight for justice for all."
Apart from Hot Docs and Tribeca Film Festival, what’s next for Call Her Ganda? Is a Philippine release in the works?
We're hoping to continue screening the film at festivals worldwide and eventually bring the film to the Philippines as well, of course. But for now, we're slowly making our way through North America. Since the film was also produced independently, we're hopeful potential distribution will allow us to make the film available to all audience worldwide in a variety of ways. Best way to keep updated is to check out CallHerGanda.com and of course, follow us on Facebook and Twitter!