Call Her Ganda: Trans Rights & U.S. Imperialism
"I am amazed by what I've seen in this film, because I have never seen a general audience marching over the death of a trans woman here in the United States. That would just not happen."
In October 2014, Jennifer Laude was murdered by an American marine stationed in the Philippines. The resulting court-case and national protest were captured by Filipino-American filmmaker P.J. Raval in his documentary Call Her Ganda, a meditation on on-going U.S. imperialism and trans rights that follows the three women seeking justice for Jennifer. CINEMQ spoke to Raval earlier this year at BFI Flare in London.
Tell us a little about your background and your relationship with the Philippines.
I am Filipino American, queer, born and raised in the United States. My parents come from there. But up until making this film, I don't think I'd had much interaction with the Philippines.
In late 2014, I was fortunate enough to go to the Philippines to screen some of my previous films at Pink Querzon City Queer Film Festival. I thought, oh wow, this is going to be an amazing opportunity for me to discover the country on my own, and also discover the queer communities.
When I got there, it was shortly after the crime had been committed. It was a really interesting time to be there for me, because part of the festival was coinciding with the first pride celebration in Querzon City.
How does Querzon City compare to the rest of Metro Manila?
There's a lot of artists that live there, a lot of LGBT culture is there. Manila itself had had pride celebrations, but Querzon City never had. So it was an interesting time to be there, because on one hand, you had all these LGBT people marching proud, and at the same time you had a brutal murder that had just occurred, and people were outraged over it. So I think what I witnessed very early on was a very politically active, mobilised LGBT community that very much was recognising the importance of being able to speak about basic rights, and thinking about being rightly outraged over the death of Jennifer Laude, and looking at this as a perfect example of why they needed to be out on the streets and raising awareness.
This is around the time that the Philippines had just elected their first trans congresswoman. And I don't know the exact history of that, but she is certainly probably the first [trans] congresswoman in Asia, if not the world. So going there at that moment, I feel like I really experienced a lot of the Philippines in different ways. It was an interesting time to be there.
How did you first connect with Jennifer Laude's story, and how did the film come about?
I ended up on a panel for LGBT rights as part of the festival, and happened to be sitting alongside attorney Virginia Suarez, who is the lawyer who represents the Laude family. I had learned a little about Jennifer Laude just through the media, but sitting there listening to Virgie was probably the first time I had heard something more personal and intimate about the Laude family themselves, and also just Virgie just contextualising the importance of this moment, and what the potential future and outcome could be of Jennifer's story.
Virgie screened a small clip Jennifer's mom had filmed on her cell phone. It was basically her saying, "How could someone do this to my beautiful child? I won't rest until someone is held accountable."
It made me realise there was a lot more to the story than what was being covered in the media. One of the audience members during the Q&A portion said, "You should make your next film about Jennifer Laude. And I said, "This absolutely should be made into a film, it's very important, it's very timely. But I don't know if I'm the right person to do it." I'm from the United States. Yes, I'm Filipino American, but I haven't spent that much time here.
I called a friend who is Filipino American, and she said, "It's not that you should make this film, it's that you have to make this film, because you have all these resources available to you in the United States, and someone in the Philippines will never have that. And if you really want to get that story out there, you really be using your skills and your resources."
"It wouldn't be the same if someone from the Philippines was doing it. And for you to be potentially criticising the United States and the US government, it holds a lot of weight that you are a citizen and you live here."
I said, "You're right. This is going to be my contribution to whatever movement is forming."
I know first hand how the Philippines from the US perspective is completely overlooked, and a lot of the history is omitted from the history books. And also at that moment, standing in the Philippines as an American citizen, I understood the privilege that I carry. It was very clear to me. So part of me started thinking maybe I should do this, make a film. Not just because it's an important topic, but because it's the film that I probably need to see.
As a member of the LGBT community, I'm very aware of violence against trans women and queer people, specifically trans women of colour, across the board, in every country. I knew after seeing that clip that the heart of the film was going to be Jennifer's mom, and that Virgie was going to be a strong part of it as the action. And so she introduced me to them, and showed them some of my films, and said what I was interested in doing, and the family was pretty signed on right away.
Can you talk about how the otherness you experience in both the Philippines and US, and the 'white America first' and imperialist mentality we see represented in the film, influences your work?
I grew up in a small town in central California. In the 80s when I was growing up there, it was a very small town, very white, very conservative. There were no Filipinos there. So I really had no sense of Filipino identity, because it didn't exist.
In the town I grew up in, one of my earliest memories is seeing the KKK march around during some event. So I've always been aware of opposition towards me as an individual, whether that be as a person of colour, or a queer individual. To be both of those, I think it positions you in a really unique space, because I have been in many POC spaces where I feel like they're homophobic and transphobic. And I have been in plenty of LGBT spaces where I feel like it's racist. And they don't see it, right? Or they think because they're coming from a marginalised group, they get it. And I'm like, 'Mmm, you don't.'
No free passes?
No free passes. And so I think early on, I got very comfortable with the idea of being an outsider. And I do cling to that word. I think it defines me very much. I find a lot of empowerment in that word, because being an outsider means you can look in from the outside.
So in making this film, part of me wanted to explore just...a lot of things. It's been interesting making this film, and I'll just give you a couple of examples, like...even just telling someone in the beginning that I'm going to make a film in the Philippines. Automatically, just speaking to someone from the film world, they're like, 'Oh, so it's going to be this really like low-resolution, lo-fi, gritty documentary, right, on some small little camcorder?' And I'd be like, 'You would never say that if I told you I was shooting a film in France.'
'If I told you I was shooting a film in Germany, you would expect it to be beautiful...why don't you think that about the Philippines? Is it because you think it's a poor country? Is it because you think it's Asia? Is it because it's people of colour? What is it?'
So part of me was very conscious about making something that was also just very beautiful an visually expressive, because that's how I see the culture, and I know that there is this view of a country like the Philippines as very backwards...as very underdeveloped and all kinds of things, when actually they're very progressive. Thinking about queer identity, they're a century ahead of the United States in every way" from the culture, the language, the fact that at the time in the United States the question was, 'Can we even have a woman president?' The Philippines has already had one! And a trans congresswoman. So even just the cultural acceptance of women and queer individuals far outweighs what is happening in the United States, yet the United States as a wealthy nation thinks of itself as a very progressive country.
I end up in these spaces in the Philippines, and I'm like, 'This is crazy, there is so much happening here.' And then I go back, and I can tell that's not what people think about the Philippines and Asia in general. And especially in the United States. The concept of the model minority myth is true, like Asians are these good, model minorities. They don't think of Asian culture in terms of gender and sexuality. They don't think of it as being progressive on things such as women's rights. 'Keep your head down, be good at your job...and don't be competition.'
The point is that making the film itself, I wanted the act of making, and the film itself in terms of its aesthetics and expressive approach, to be kind of an act of rebellion. Maybe 'rebellion' isn't the right word. I wanted it to challenge people in terms of what they think they're going to see, what they assume the film is going to be about.
There were a lot of things I did intentionally. I already knew I was not going to make a film about a marine. If I'm making a film about colonisation and imperialism, it's a disservice to make a film about the coloniser. I'm making the film about those resisting the imperialist. For me, this film isn't about whether Pemberton is guilty or not. For me, this is the experience of these women pursuing some kind of justice. Their hardships and the barriers they are going to face. So I already knew that was going to be something I focused on, just as I already knew I wanted to make it really beautiful because that was also going to counter the idea of this vulnerable, poor country.
And then I was also very interested in how the film was going to be produced, so I intentionally brought on all these Filipino Canadian, Filipino American producers in the Philippines to be my core. And all of us had our own reasons for wanting to make this. Three out of the four producers are also queer. So that was something that was also important. In every aspect, I felt that we were going to be looking at the long-standing effects of US imperialism in the Philippines, and how these people are resisting it, so that the process of making the film is also resistance somehow. In its aesthetics, in its production, in its message, in its subject. And it's the first time I think I've made a film with that much awareness.
Has there been a difference in audience response in US and Philippines, and in how you caveat the film?
In general, the United States as a culture is very divided. One of the first comments I got during our premiere was from a woman in the audience who identifies as a lesbian. She said, "I am amazed by what I've seen in this film, because I have never seen a general audience marching over the death of a trans woman here in the United States. That would just not happen." And I knew what she meant, because in the United States, if there is an incident challenging LGBT, the expectation is for LGBTQ+ people to go out and march over it. Women's reproductive healthcare rights, there is an expectation for women to do that. Whoever is being challenged, there is the burden of that marginalised group carrying the weight of changing some policy or something.
For me, what's really amazing about this story is that's not what happened. You really have a sense of ally-ship and solidarity. You had women's rights groups and LGBT rights groups and trans groups, anti-Us imperialist groups...and if it weren't for the fact that they all came together, probably nothing would have happened. So I think that aspect of it is a wake-up call for a lot of people in the United States when they watch this film. They say, 'Oh, what are all those people doing?' I think that's a huge thing. And I think also just recognising cultural differences, and how that kind of works.
When I screen the film in the Philippines, I think it depends. I have screened it in the areas where there are a lot of people who are in the film, or maybe who were out on the street, and for them, what they take away from it is that it's the story that isn't being told in the media, because they are so aware of everything that was made available in the news, and now they're seeing behind the scenes.
I also think that one of the things that has been especially great about audience reactions in the United States has been younger women of colour who come up to me and say, 'Thank you for making a film about strong women.' I've had trans individuals come up to me and say that they appreciate how the film represents different types of trans women...you can be a reporter, you can be a sex worker or and activist, or a politician. And specifically in the Philippines, I get a lot of reactions and comments on the fact that I'm Filipino American, that they appreciate me trying to bridge that gap.
In the process of making this film, I have met a lot of very active Filipino and Filipino Americans who are very interested in what is happening in the Philippines, and seeing what they can do in the United States. And I think it is surprising to people in the Philippines that this group of people would be interested in doing that. The Philippines is so much about exporting people as labour, so there isn't really a concept of people returning. So I think the fact that there are Filipino American's like myself and others who are interested in what is happening there and what they can do locally is really amazing to people there.
How do you feel making this film has helped you to unpack your own identity?
It really has been a life changing experience for me, making this film, because it has tapped into a whole new consciousness. I think for years I really was thinking about films and other people's perspectives, and I think with this one I was like, 'I'm going to make a film for me.' I wanted to make a film that I want to see, that would speak to me as a queer Filipino American. Moving forward, it is inspiring to me because I think in the past I wouldn't have thought that was a valid point of view, and now I do. To recognise it's not something to be ashamed about.
Interview originally conducted in English. Images are from the internet.
Interview: Will Dai
Translation: Will Dai
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