Call PJ Raval’s ‘Call Her Ganda’ riv­et­ing /

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - ENTERTAINMENT - RUBEN V. NEPALES

LOS AN­GE­LES— As if the case of Jen­nifer Laude, a Filipino trans­gen­der woman mur­dered by a USMarine in an Olon­gapo mo­tel room, her head sub­merged in the toi­let bowl, wasn’t com­pelling enough, di­rec­tor PJ Raval, in his doc­u­men­tary “Call Her Ganda,” also found four women to riv­et­ingly tell their joint ef­forts to seek jus­tice.

At the film’s re­cent screen­ing in the Los An­ge­les Asian Pa­cific Film Fes­ti­val in West Hol­ly­wood, I sat trans­fixed not just by PJ’s chron­i­cle of Jen­nifer’s plight, but also by these Filipino wom­en­who, in essence, give ar­tic­u­late voice to the 26-year-old sex worker whose life was bru­tally snuffed out by Joseph Scott Pem­ber­ton. They are: Jen­nifer’s mother Julita Laude, jour­nal­ist Mered­ith Talu­san, lawyer Vir­gie Suarez and trans ac­tivist Naomi Fon­tanos.

When “Call Her Ganda” ended, the au­di­ence ap­plauded the boy­ish-look­ing Fil-Am di­rec­tor who in­tro­duced the film and then an­swered ques­tions from the au­di­ence. Some mem­bers of his crew joined the film­maker.

Born and raised in Clo­vis (cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia), PJ moved to San Diego and then to Austin, Texas where he is based. The award-win­ning film­maker and cin­e­matog­ra­pher’s cred­its in­clude “Trinidad” and “Be­fore You Know It.”

Shoot­ing “Call Her Ganda” in the Philip­pines was an eye­open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for PJ who vis­ited the coun­try as a kid with his par­ents. He found three fel­low pro­duc­ers to col­lab­o­rate with in his first time to shoot in the Philip­pines—Marty Syjuco, Kara Magsanoc-Alik­pala and Lisa Va­len­cia-Svens­son.

Marty, the Emmy-nom­i­nated pro­ducer whose first film is di­rec­tor Michael Collins’ “Give Up To­mor­row”—the ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary about the trial of Paco Lar­rañaga, one of the sus­pects in the 1997 kid­nap-mur­der of two sis­ters in Cebu—talked about work­ing with PJ for the first time.

“Mak­ing ‘Call Her Ganda’ with PJ was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence than work­ing with my film­mak­ing part­ner Michael Collins,” the Fil-Am said. “On ‘Give Up To­mor­row’ and ‘Al­most Sun­rise,’ work­ing with Michael was sec­ond na­ture be­cause we know each other so well, and we com­ple­ment each other per­fectly. Work­ing with PJ, who I didn’t know very well at the time, re­quired a huge leap of faith!

“But I was blown away by his vi­sion and pas­sion to bring Jen­nifer’s story to the big screen.

“Af­ter my first meet­ing with PJ at a film­mak­ers’ re­treat in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, my in­stinct was to jump in. Three days later, we were meet­ing with a film fun­der, and three months later, we were in the Philip­pines on our first shoot. Three years later, we’ve just pre­miered ‘ Call Her Ganda’ at Tribeca and Hot Docs and the re­cep­tion has been tremen­dous. And now, we shift fo­cus to what mat­ters most, to bring the film home to the Philip­pines.”

Ex­cerpts from our in­ter­view with PJ:

How did you end up mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary on the case of Jen­nifer Laude?

At first, I was ap­pre­hen­sive … but af­ter speak­ing with lawyer Vir­ginia Suarez and hav­ing sev­eral heart-to-heart chats with var­i­ous friends and col­leagues, it be­came clear to me that my point of view as a FilipinoAmer­i­can could be unique since I know first­hand how the Philip­pines has been over­looked and mis­un­der­stood from a US per­spec­tive.

I also rec­og­nized, as an Amer­i­can film­maker, that I have re­sources avail­able to me that could be in­stru­men­tal in tak­ing on a story with such a large scope and that could get the story out to wider au­di­ences glob­ally.

How much of an eye-opener for you was this ex­pe­ri­ence of film­ing in the Philip­pines?

Up un­til mak­ing this doc­u­men­tary, I never knew that most Fil- ipinos killed dur­ing a war was at the hands of Amer­i­can soldiers dur­ing the Philip­pine-Amer­i­can War. I never knew that the pres­ence of in­di­vid­u­als that were gen­der non­bi­nary or maybe to­day who we would also in­clude as “trans” in­di­vid­u­als ex­isted and held prom­i­nent com­mu­nity po­si­tions be­fore be­ing tar­geted and elim­i­nated by the Catholic Church and or­ga­nized re­li­gion.

The Philip­pines has sur­vived cen­turies of im­pe­ri­al­ism and col­o­niza­tion. I never re­al­ized how deep that ran up un­til mak­ing this film.

How did the story of Jen­nifer Laude res­onate with you, as a Filipino-Amer­i­can, es­pe­cially in the con­text of the com­plex re­la­tions of the US and the Philip­pines for many years and, on a per­sonal level?

As a queer in­di­vid­ual, I also know first­hand how LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ties have been marginal­ized and are tar­gets of hate and vi­o­lence.

So all of this makes Jen­nifer Laude’s story per­sonal to me be­cause it’s also the story of the Filipino peo­ple and of the queer com­mu­nity. The strug­gle for equal­ity and gen­eral hu­man rights par­al­lels the Philip­pine na­tion’s strug­gle for sovereignty from a for­eign su­per­power.

You couldn’t find a more ef­fec­tive quar­tet of fe­male fig­ures to help you tell the story of Jen­nifer Laude.

Each of the sub­jects plays a very key role in the film:

For me, Julita Laude or Nanay is the heart of the film. Her un­con­di­tional love as a mother to Jen­nifer … is un­par­al­leled. Her strength and con­vic­tion for tire­lessly pur­su­ing jus­tice in a sys­tem where peo­ple who are eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged and are not af­forded ac­cess to le­gal help is in­spir­ing.

Mered­ith is the head and rep­re­sents the in­tel­lect. As an in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter, she’s able to pose the im­por­tant ques­tions and un­cover the many lay­ers.

Lastly, Vir­gie and Naomi rep­re­sent the flesh or the ac­tion. They em­body the fight for sovereignty.

Why did you de­cide to con­cen­trate on the side of Jen­nifer Laude—her fam­ily, friends and lawyer—only?

The story is about these women pur­su­ing jus­tice against a for­eign su­per­power.

How did you end up team­ing with Marty Syjuco, Kara Magsanoc-Alik­pala and Lisa Va­len­cia-Svens­son as your fel­low pro­duc­ers?

The story is about these women pur­su­ing jus­tice against a for­eign su­per­power

With so many chal­leng­ing pro­duc­tion fac­tors, early on I knew the first thing I had to do was as­sem­ble a strong pro­duc­ing team which could not only un­der­stand film­mak­ing, but also the larger con­text and im­por­tance of this film. So it’s im­por­tant to me to point out the team is all-Filipino and mostly queer.

What were the chal­lenges of shoot­ing in the Philip­pines?

Any­time you de­cide to film out­side of the coun­try you live in, go­ing into pro­duc­tion will present cer­tain chal­lenges like get­ting your­self plus what­ever gear you need over to said coun­try. But pretty much the key is estab­lish­ing strong lo­cal re­sources.

And what were the things that you en­joyed about film­ing in the Philip­pines?

Mostly, I’ve en­joyed feel­ing a per­sonal con­nec­tion to the Philip­pines, one that didn’t ex­ist be­fore but I knew should be there.

What has your ex­pe­ri­ence been like so far at screen­ings in New York (Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val), LA (Los An­ge­les Asian Pa­cific Film Fes­ti­val) and Toronto (Hot Docs Cana­dian In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val)?

The re­ac­tion from au­di­ences has been truly amaz­ing. I think peo­ple who don’t iden­tify as trans or Filipino are ini­tially sur­prised by how much they feel con­nected to the sub­jects and how moved they are watch­ing the film.

Di­rec­tor PJ Raval (cen­ter) and DP Mike Simp­son pre­pare to film Julita Laude, Jen­nifer's mother.

RUBEN V. NEPALES

PJ Raval—

Jen­nifer Laude

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