When Jennifer Laude, a Filipina transwoman, is brutally murdered by a U.S. Marine, three women intimately invested in the case–an activist attorney, a transgender journalist and Jennifer’s mother)–galvanize a political uprising, pursuing justice and taking on hardened histories of US imperialism.
Okay, so Call Her Ganda has a lot to say. In the 2014 trans woman, Jennifer Laude was murdered in the Philippines. Strangled, left for dead with her head in a toilet, her murderer, an American Marine, walked away from the scene of the crime and back out to a night of fun with his buddies. What resulted was a three-year battle led by BuzzFeed reporter Meredith Talusan, Filipino Attorney Virginia Lacsa Suarez, and the victim’s mother Julita Laude that lit the fuse on an explosive, multicultural, multinational debate that had been raging for decades but the explosion is scattershot and less effective than it could have been.
“…trans woman, Jennifer Laude was murdered in the Philippines…her murderer, an American Marine…”
It was all but crystal clear that Jennifer Laude was murdered by 19-year-old PFC Joseph Scott Pemberton, an American Marine. Eyewitness accounts and surveillance footage corroborate that the two left a nightclub, where Laude offered her services and went to a hotel across the street. It is surmised that Pemberton, after discovering Laude was a genetic male, lashed out in a rage, committed the murder, and left to casually resume his night on the town. In the U.S. this would be considered a hate crime. However, this was the Philippines. The country’s Visiting Forces Agreement pretty much gave immunity to American officers. So, with little to work with and a political quagmire to stand on, it would seem that Laude would become another disposable life at the hands of pleasure-seeking officers.
Filled with grief and rage, Laude’s mother Julita Laude takes up the cause to champion for justice. Joined by Talusan and Suarez, the three women form a connection to not only bring Jennifer’s killer to justice but to take on the very troubles, very lopsided relations between the United States and the Philippines. Told through first-hand recollections from friends, family, and the transgender community, director PJ Raval’s emotionally charged doc seems to want to take on the world yet it hasn’t the focus to do so.
“…the most heart wrenching…is Julita Laude’s loss of her daughter…and the crater in the family that is left behind from her murder…”
We have several very important issues all exploding at once here. We have the battle for trans equality which is an issue that needs to be established, settled and won not just in the Philippines, but throughout the entire world. Next, we have the prickly and problematic relationship between the United States and the Philippines where the U.S. seems to have a far better deal. Then, at the center of it all, we have the singular fight for justice after a murder has gone free. Each of these matters is tremendously important but for a documentary to be truly effective, we need a throughline to hold onto. Each of these matters is given the same precedence, yet the film would have been far more effective focusing on one and using the other two as supporting narratives.
Certainly, the most heart wrenching of the three is Julita Laude’s loss of her daughter, Jennifer Laude, and the crater in the family that is left behind from her murder. It is this passion, this rage, that demands to take on, not only the justice system, but prejudice, and global relations between two nations. That is easily the most powerful story in the film. In fact, after the denouement, the film continues to linger on the political aspects of the debate and our hearts and minds have long since checked out.
Call Her Ganda is not a bad documentary, but it is one with entirely too much to say in one 93 minute piece. Brevity is the soul of wit, but in this case, focus would be the soul of the debate.
Call Her Ganda (2018) Directed by PJ Raval. Written by PJ Raval, Victoria Chalk. Starring Naomi Fontanos, Julita Laude, Virginia Lacsa Suarez. Call Her Ganda made its Los Angeles Premiere at the 2018 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Call Her Ganda gets three stars ***
Norm’s Rating System: ****(GREAT) ***(Good) **(Ok) *(Awful)