Following the case against the US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton for killing Jennifer Laude, and the consequences of his deed with an engaged yet not biased eye, “Call her Ganda” demonstrates film-maker’s stance, as well as capacity to build a coherent and comprehensive narration. It leaves an important report that is still just a piece of a large puzzle
She was born Jeffrey Laude, died Jennifer Laude, but since she was a child, she called herself “Ganda” – pretty, beautiful – and required to be called that. Her death by hands of a US Marine lead to protests not only by the members of transgender community, but also to vehement questioning of the US – Philippines relation.
In October 2014, Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman in her twenties, went out with her friend Barbie to the Ambyanz disco bar in Olongapo. There she met a young US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton with whom she left. Later that night, Jennifer was found dead. Evidence acquired in the room pointed to Pemberton. The Laude family filed a murder complaint against Pemberton.
Laude’s murder became the last drop to tear up the damn of discontent with the way the Philippines are treated by the USA. The court proceeding was accompanied by protests pointing out the unjustified favourable treatment of US Marines in relation to the local justice system, while in the same time calling for decent treatment of the transgender people including sex workers. Laude became a symbol for inequality on multiple levels.
“Call Her Ganda”’s main voice belongs to Jennifer Laude’s family, friends and lawyers. It only makes sense that theirs is emotion, sadness, anger, the strongest belonging to the family members; for Jennifer and for the unknown members of the Philippines’ transgender community. These are balanced by the recollection of factual and legal information as stated in the police reports and judicial minutes, TV news. During the proceeding, no press was allowed at the hearings, so there is no direct footage or recording for media purposes. The film too had to rely on comments of the persons involved, and provides space to express their stance to Pemberton lawyer and family too.
Meredith Talusan, LGBT Staff Writer for BuzzFeed News, represents an important part of the narrative. Talusan looks further into how news and social media work to gain compassion for basically both parties involved (or to disgrace the other), and tries to find reason behind acts and procedures that anger one or the other party. She becomes the documentary’s narrator as she conducts her own investigation on the reactions the case incited.
Short excerpts from the history of the Philippines – USA relation, military educational videos, including videos “explaining” connection between presence of military personnel and prostitution and the explanation on brief history of the status of the transgender people in the Philippines add more of the context and suggest some of the roots of such a strong reaction of the local communities. What should not be overlooked is that before the first contact with European cultures and Christianity especially, transgender people in the Philippines enjoyed high social status. They were considered blessed and often took role of shamans, healers, or local community leaders.
“Call Her Ganda” may not offer a complex picture of Jennifer Laude’s death. Yet, it never even hints at this ambition. What it does instead of documenting a single crime, is that it looks at it as a symptom (or one of the symptoms) of an long-standing interdependence between several social and national groups: the Filipinos and the US Marines in general, and more specifically the Filipino transgender community or, the US Marines and the local transgender sex workers; PJ Raval follows Olongapo also in the aftermath of the Pemberton’s sentencing, with almost no Marines in the streets and economical drops leading to backlash against the trans community.
Taken from an even wider perspective, Call Her Ganda offers another drop into the pool of insights on how non-existence of dialogue, silent acceptance, and deaf ear can open doors to radical acts and choices. It also discloses some of the consequences of that infamously trendy “toxic masculinity” in action; a simple “am not interested in lady boy” might save you from the “shock” of (lady)penis and a sudden understanding of the concept of valid consent. Jennifer became another symbol for where the lack of will to understand if not accept can lead.