In 2014 trans woman Jennifer Laude was brutally murdered in the Philippines by an American serviceman. What would have played as a typical murder in the United States became an international incident, opening up discussion about U.S. involvement in the independent nation of the Philippines. PJ Raval’s documentary on the murder, Call Her Ganda expertly juggles the various facets of what Jennifer Laude’s murder meant for the country, from how it affects the lives of trans sex workers to exposing the insidious history of American military harassment of Filipino women without ever losing sight of the victim herself, Jennifer Laude.
Jennifer Laude was called “ganda” by her mother, which means “beauty.” Video and photographic evidence of this is on display, showing Jennifer Laude as a vibrant woman who, though struggling to financially help her mother and sisters, was living her best life. She was trans, yes. It’s unclear whether she was a sex worker. Peeling back the multiple layers of what the film sets out to accomplish, Jennifer Laude’s murder and the subsequent trial is first and foremost.
Raval wants the audience to see that Laude’s profession or trans status wasn’t reason enough to demand her life, and yet many people don’t see it that way. Buzzfeed writer Meredith Talusan, who acts as both audience surrogate and a proud Filipina trans woman who made good, is left to wade through the horrific Facebook and Twitter comments from people who believe Laude “lied” to her murderer, American serviceman Daniel Pemberton, and thus deserved her fate. Raval attempts to make the audience see the continued hatred and prejudice against trans women that often manifests into violence.
It’s a fate many of the trans women in the Philippines discuss, both in the wake and aftermath of Laude’s murder. Talusan feels a kinship to Laude’s family, believing that they, too, see her as an offshoot of their murdered love one. The writer interviews Laude’s friends and other female sex workers who discuss the discrimination they face, both for being trans women as well as sex workers. Some feel shame. But Raval states this is the only avenue available to most of them.
For Raval and the people of the Philippines, Laude’s murder is part of a systemic culture of abuse stemming from America’s continued military presence. Using archival footage and military training videos, the audience learns how the U.S. sees the country – as a place of debauchery with access to easy sex. It doesn’t help that the justice system for U.S. servicemen is non-existent. Upon finding Laude’s murderer, the prosecution’s hands are tied with a one-year deadline to convict, a law created as part of a pact between the Philippines and the U.S.
Virgie Suarez, the Laude’s attorney, is the hero of Call Her Ganda. Her determination to get justice is admirable. She’s fearless, marching right up to the military gates and demanding to subpoena Pemberton herself. She’s one of many women in the film whose only pursuit is justice.
As the Laude trial begins, the documentary enters its third act with Pemberton’s family, and the U.S. by extension, arguing over the need for him to be imprisoned in the country. Laude’s fiance questions why, since in America, people are jailed in the U.S. regardless of whether they’re a citizen of the country. It’d be difficult to break down the fraught reasons for why the Philippines remains in this limbo of appeasing the U.S. while simultaneously acting autonomously, but the film does a solid job of giving the basics. No matter what it’s unfair, especially when it’s revealed that the country is considering building a special jail just for Pemberton.
Speaking of Laude’s murderer, Raval and crew give him as much consideration as they can. They baldly state the facts of his crime but leave Talusan to investigate his background and question how a seemingly nice guy – according to his mother – with a sister “involved in the LGBT community” could do this. As she interviews a resident of Pemberton’s hometown, a man who openly refers to Jennifer as a “she-he” it leaves the film on a somber note. Are we getting any better in terms of trans representation?
Call Her Ganda tells of a story that sets a precedent for further autonomy in the Philippines while simultaneously demanding U.S. awareness of our continued apathy towards the deaths of trans women and sex workers. PJ Raval tells a story that demands our attention and, more importantly, our respect.