“CALL HER GANDA”
“Call Her Ganda” is a staggering and thought-provoking documentary on the epidemic of violence against LGBTQ people. Part-chronicle, part-tribute, the film is ushered by Three central female figures take on a seemingly never-ending and irremediable quest for justice in this part-tribute, part-chronicle powerful film.
Jennifer Laude was a twenty-six-year-old transgender woman from the Philippines who died at the hands of a US Marine. She was warm, caring and giving person who did not have, Jennifer did not have a normal childhood and grew up in a bigoted, oppressive environment where she always feared for her safety. As a young adult, she used most of the money she made to help her mother and make generous loans to her community. Julita, her mother, called her Ganda (the Tagalog word for “beauty”), as the little girl would always playfully talk about how pretty she was.
After she grew up, Jennifer became a sex worker. One night on the job, she was taken to a motel by Joseph Scott Pemberton, a nineteen-year-old American serviceman who brutally killed her by submerging her head in the toilet of the motel’s bathroom. After being apprehended, Pemberton received plenty of sympathy from media figures, law enforcement officers and the general public. In response, three brave women took it on themselves to help bring justice to Jennifer’s ghastly death. One of them was Meredith Talusan, a trans journalist who brought the case to the media’s spotlight by publishing articles. Another was Virgie Suarez, a devoted attorney who relentlessly fought for Laude’s attacker to receive legal punishment. The third was Jennifer’s mother who was the leading figure behind several political protests, ensuring that her voice is heard and that her daughter’s tragic death is not overlooked.
It was not the public at large, but a group of LGBTQ individuals and allies who openly mourned Jennifer’s loss and rioted and called for justice to be served. Only a handful of media-recognized figures stood up to this horrible death, but it was enough to spur a movement that managed to obtain a conviction. (It was a reduced, hard-fought and long overdue verdict with Pemberton eventually sentenced for homicide after years of trial).
This ruling represented a critical juncture for the trans community of the Philippines, as for over a century not a single United States soldier was ever convicted for reported harassment, murder and rape and this certainly far not the first care of abuse of trans Filipinas by American servicemen— these officers were consistently assigned immunity under the region’s Visiting Forces Agreement. This blatant favoritism is what sparked a genuine controversy on a political and social level in the aftermath of Jennifer’s death, drawing attention to institutional violence, colonialism and how transphobia still operates in the court of law. Director PJ Raval includes a relevant segment on the historical colonization of the Philippines taking a critical look regarding the United States’ political influence and its residual effects in the country. The documentary does not only showcase the search for justice, but also the prejudice, hatred and undertones of bigotry that prevent it from coming to an end.
This is an important and fascinating watch. It’s also an upsetting, eye-opening film layered with themes of oppression, inhumanity, and discrimination. We immediately know why Jennifer was murdered—that alone is an unfortunate truth we have had to come to terms with. But how she was murdered and just what happens afterward is nothing we might have expected.