Film Update

July 2 2019

POV: 'Call Her Ganda' | Film Update

In July 2019, POV asked Call Her Ganda filmmaker PJ Raval what's happened since the cameras stopped rolling.

How is Nanay doing now? What has her response been to the film?

Well, as Virgie states in the film, because Pemberton and his legal team have been appealing the conviction everything has been “literally suspended,” so that includes any financial compensation awarded to the family in the judge’s ruling. As you know, Nanay lives in a remote area and she very much depended on the financial support from Jennifer. So now with a lack of Jennifer’s support, plus dealing with the costs of traveling to the courthouse in Olongapo for close to a year in addition to all the unexpected costs of a funeral etc., one can imagine how much of a financial burden this whole experience has been and continues to be for Nanay in addition to the already physical and emotional toll Jennifer’s death and on-going court case has taken. Because of this, we have set up a support site in case anyone wishes to donate to the family and the ongoing legal fund (as a reminder Virgie works as the Laude family attorney pro bono!)

But with that all said, I think Nanay and the Laude family remain unwavering in which I have total and complete respect for them, knowing their daily struggles. Nanay is still very much exhausted from all the travel during the trial, so she has not been able to attend any of the public screenings of the film. So we decided to bring the film to Nanay and we held a private screening for the family in her home. As you can imagine, watching the film was very emotional for Nanay but also seeing the few last images of Jennifer including the video footage was an especially powerful moment. Nanay told me one of her biggest fears is she may start to forget “Ganda”. So seeing the film brought Jennifer back to her. Nanay thanked us for making the film and was moved to see the many people fighting for #Justice4Jennifer. But also there was a really funny moment when she said she finally understood why I followed her around all the time and filmed her doing laundry, ha ha! Since I don’t believe Nanay watches many documentary films, I think seeing Call Her Ganda finally put the whole filming process into perspective!

When did you first encounter Jennifer's story and how did you meet the three women that Call Her Ganda came to focus on (Julita, Virgie, Meredith)?

In late 2014 I was fortunate enough to be invited by film scholar and auteur Nick Deocampo to visit the Philippines to screen my previous documentaries (Trinidad and Before You Know It). When I arrived it was shortly after the crime had been committed so I saw the initial reporting on the news and definitely in my social media feeds. But long story short, I ended up on a panel for LGBTQ+ rights alongside Atty. Virginia Suarez (aka “Virgie”). During this panel is when I truly learned about the story of Jennifer Laude and really what was at stake with the court case pending. Shortly after, I committed to making the documentary but only if I would be able to receive the blessing and participation of the Laude family. Virgie showed the family my past films, explained to them what I was interested in doing and they signed on almost immediately which was a huge accomplishment in itself as they had previously turned down numerous requests to be filmed and only agreed to be on camera during official press statements. So to be able to film them behind closed doors during this vulnerable time was a huge honor. After returning to the U.S. from this initial trip I quietly told a few Filipino American friends of my new project and someone put me in touch immediately with Meredith Talusan who had just begin reporting on the story. Having followed both Virgie and Nanay I knew Meredith would be the perfect narrator to the film and thankfully Meredith allowed me to also feature her insightful articles as well.

The Visiting Forces Agreement is still active in the Philippines. Has there been continued activism around this since the film? How does it continue affect the LGBTQ+ community?

As many have said before, the story of Jennifer Laude is also the story of the Filipino people. So the #Justice4Jennifer movement continues to thrive and grow stronger by the day, perhaps even more so through the Trump and Duterte administrations. This movement is one of the few times there has been a unified front amongst trans activists, LGBTQ+ activists, women’s rights groups, anti-imperialist activists, military reform activists, etc. The activists are extremely organized and are pushing for change in many ways including social, cultural and legislative ones. Since Jennifer’s death, many cities have adopted local pro-LGBTQ+ and anti-hate bills thanks to the efforts of the activists. As Naomi mentions in the film to Meredith, there’s even a SOGIE bill (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression) that has been revived with Congress members, always mentioning Jennifer in reference. The bill was reintroduced by the first trans congresswoman in the House, Geraldine Roman, and is currently pending the Senate vote after passing the House. And for me, perhaps some of the most exciting continued activism is seeing what is also happening in the U.S. itself also led mostly by Filipino and Asian American women. Just yesterday a women’s led group in Hawaii was successful in getting a bill passed for a non-binary driver’s license, recognizing transgender and gender nonconforming identities on government IDs. In their social media post they ended saying, “this one is for #JenniferLaude. Rest in power, kapatid.” (Kapatid in tagalog meaning “sibling”). Groups like Gabriela, Migrante, AF3IRM etc.— all led by Filipino Americans—continue to make strides and most recently a new organization called Malaya (tagalog for “peace”) formed with chapters across the U.S. dedicated to fighting Duterte’s “drug war” and martial law of Mindanao. They recently held a summit in Washington D.C. and are urging the U.S. Congress to stop funding the current Duterte Administration which actively violates human rights and is suppressing and imprisoning journalists and those who are speaking out against the administration. At the summit, they screenedCall Her Ganda and used the story of Jennifer Laude as an example of imperialism and injustice. So the #Justice4Jennifer movement has grown to encompass general human rights and an intersectional fight for equality, which is really exciting.

The film intimately navigates the close relationships that Jennifer had and the immediate pain of her community, while encompassing a larger perspective of the Visiting Forces Agreement and U.S. imperialism in the Philippines.
Was it always clear to you that the two were connected? How did you find balance between how each was presented through the film?

During one of my community screenings in NYC, trans activist Pauline Park said that the queer community will never have equality until we can fully recognize LGBTQ+ rights as basic human rights for all. This is the same point of view Naomi Fontanos shares in the film and I too believe this sentiment as well. As a society we need to stop putting the weight of the issue solely onto the community that is being oppressed. As allies we need to take active responsibility to ensure and protect the rights of all our community members. For example, when women’s reproductive health care rights are being attacked, the public waits for women to hit the streets. What about men? Should they not fight for women’s basic rights as well? They should listen and let women lead the way, but there should be an expectation for men to be fighting for these rights too. But is this expectation currently there? What about people of color fighting for LGBTQ+ rights or vice versa? What if you identify as members of both communities? Is one supposed to be more important than the other? Allyship and intersectional solidarity is a must. This is what the story of Jennifer Laude shows us. An attack on Jennifer Laude is an attack on the Filipino people. But we also need to be able to understand the larger structure of oppression. So linking the violence towards trans women of color to other issues such as imperialism and militarism is key, otherwise trans rights is made marginal when it is central to human rights writ large. This is what I have learned from those fighting for #Justice4Jennifer and this is why Jennifer’s story is so important because the factors that led to her death are undeniable. I don’t think I fully comprehended all of this before making the documentary. With each film I’ve made I learn and grow which is part of my inspiration and motivation to make the film.

What are you working on now?

I like to keep my cards close, but what I will say is I remain dedicated to sharing the stories of those overlooked and underserved. So you can definitely count on that!