Director PJ Raval Reveals How He Filmed a Pressing Legal Battle Unfolding in Real-Time
The moving documentary 'Call Her Ganda' investigates the story of a slain transgendered woman in the Philippines.
The story of a heinous crime made more painful due to the political bias it uncovered, PJ Raval's documentary Call Her Ganda equally serves as a courtroom drama, a legal exposé, a family story of immense grief, and an account of a country's rising indignation.
In October 2014, Jennifer Laude, a transgendered woman working as a hairstylist in the Philippines to support her mother, was murdered by an American marine. After meeting one evening at a local lounge, Joseph Scott Pemberton took Laude to a hotel room where, upon discovering that Laude was transgendered, strangled her to death in the bathroom.
Pemberton's crime was met with outrage by Filipinos fed up with excessive American military presence within their sovereign country. Due to the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States, the subsequent trial lead to more anger, as a legal battle between the two countries called into question who was being treated fairly: the murdered citizen of the Philippines or the murderous American colonizer? Following Laude's mother, her attorney, and a transgendered journalist, Raval tells the story of the unfolding through the eyes of those most affected.
As the film had its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, director PJ Raval spoke with No Film School about how he struggled with knowing whether he was the right person to tell this story, how he worked to keep the presence of his subject visible throughout the film, and how he hired a social media researcher to document the online prejudice directed at Laude.
No Film School: How did this project come about? Were you looking to make a film about the Jennifer Laude case specifically? The long-existing, tense relationship between the United States and the Philippines? What was your way into this story?
PJ Raval: It all came about very organically. In late 2014, I was invited by filmmaker and scholar Nick Deocampo to go to Manila to screen two of my previous documentaries as part of the Quezon City Pink LGBTQ Film Festival. I thought this would be an amazing opportunity, as I'm Filipino-American, hadn't spent a lot of time in the Philippines, and when I had, I was a kid and really didn't remember much of it. I thought this was my opportunity to be able to forge my own connections.
Upon arrival, I discovered a community that was outraged over the death of Jennifer Laude. The crime had recently been committed, and I ended up on an LGBT Rights panel alongside Virgie Suarez, the prosecuting attorney in the film. Sitting on the panel, I learned more about the case, and she introduced me to Nanay, Jennifer's mother. Soon after the panel, we went to lunch and spoke more about it.
I wasn't sure if I was the right person to make this film because at first, I thought, "Oh, maybe someone born in the Philippines should do this. Maybe one of the activists should do this. Maybe it shouldn't be me." But then as I spoke with them, I think it became clear to everyone, including myself, that I potentially could be the person to make this film. Being Filipino-American, being able to use my own resources as a filmmaker, etc., and so it really just came about. At the time, I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do next, film-wise, but funny enough, when I was on that panel, someone suggested that I make the film!
"I wanted to remind everyone that at the core of this is a human whose life was taken away from her unjustly."
NFS: Since it was an ongoing trial, were you making several trips back and forth from the States to the Philippines? Were you scheduling your visits for when trial dates were approaching?
Raval: I would go to the Philippines for long stretches at a time. Because the case was spread out over a year, I would come for a couple of months and then go back to the US (and sometimes travel right back).
One of the first things I did was assemble a really strong producing team, and one of the producers I got on board was Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala. She's based in Manila and was a huge resource for me to have someone on the ground constantly (in case I couldn't be). I also established a local crew so that we could film different events simultaneously.
NFS: Since the film is about the unjust aftermath of her murder, Jennifer can only live on through old photographs and pixelated videos shot on a cellphone. How did you come up with a plan to have those materials circulate throughout?
Raval: I wanted to be able to have her presence throughout the film and a lot of the photographs and video footage that we were able to source, fortunately, were given to us by family, as well as her friends and boyfriend. One of the things I wanted to do was revisit her images because the image of Jennifer changes throughout the narrative.
While Jennifer is clearly a human being who was the victim of a certain amount of violence, I think due to the way the news painted her—and the way the defense attorneys were trying to present her—I wanted to remind everyone that at the core of this is a human whose life was taken away from her unjustly.
NFS: When you visited the lounge (where Jennifer met Joseph Scott Pemberton) and the hotel where she was subsequently killed, the visuals possess a very eerie weight, as if these spaces hold secrets that can never be revealed. How did you work with your cinematographer to convey that ghostly presence?
Raval: My cinematographer was Mike Simpson, who did an amazing job and we've worked together quite a bit, so I think he really understands my kind of cinematic sensibilities. When I decided to make this into a film, one of the things I really wanted to do was create a very specific, visually expressive layer to it.
A lot of the time when there are films that don't take place in the United States—that feature people and cultures that are considered less economically advanced—there's a tendency to assume that the film will be very low in production value; it will be very rough and amateur in its photography.
As the people in the Philippines are so beautiful and their culture so rich, I wanted a visual layer that paralleled that. At the same time, I wanted to give Jennifer a presence, this idea of her presence constantly with us, the camera also being able to feel like it's haunted, like it's a presence of a being.
"The Philippines is usually [treated with nothing more] than a small paragraph in an American history book."
NFS: Being an accomplished cinematographer yourself, does that require a bit of an adjustment, where you have a DP working for you and you've got to oversee the bigger picture?
Raval: You know, it's hard to say because when I'm working on a film, I'm thinking about every aspect, you know? I'm thinking about it from a producers' perspective, a directors' perspective, cinematography, the edits, etc.
I actually have no problem at all working with a cinematographer because, having a background as one, I understand the importance of it and know how I can rely heavily on and trust my cinematographer. It's actually relatively easy being able to let the cinematographer work and I feel very comfortable being able to make comments, give adjustments, and also trusting the cinematographer with his or her vision.
NFS: The story goes as far as the Philippines to New Bedford, Massachusets. In order to establish the vastness of these areas, you often include aerial, drone-like shots that provide a formal introduction to these locations. DId that help to set a tone or visual motif for your story?
Raval: Part of the film's visual language was incorporating that drone footage. While this is a story about Jennifer, for me, Jennifer very much personifies the country (and that includes the people and their land). I really wanted to give some kind of visual expression that captures that.
That's where the idea of the drone footage came in because, in a way, as we're looking at this one story and this one particular crime, we're in fact looking at an overview of the entire country, the relationship between the United States and the Philippines. The drone footage provides a literal overview, where we're seeing some high-aboves and looking down. That's how that came about and became a layer of the visuals that carried throughout the film.
NFS: Much of the tension in the film is driven by the historical context that keeps America and the Philippines at political odds. How did you identify the archival material you wanted to include and how did you formulate where to place it? What goes into strategizing how to introduce historical context in a documentary like this?
Raval: Part of the inspiration for making this film was having grown up in the United States, being Filipino-American, and recognizing that there was a real lack of knowledge of my own cultural homeland that I was missing. I wasn't taught this in school, and the Philippines is usually [treated with nothing more] than a small paragraph in an American history book.
When I went into this film, I knew right away I would have to do a lot of research on my own. Part of doing that research made me realize how important it was to present historical footage, to be able to put this particular story of Jennifer Laude into the larger context. Along with that came the use of archival material and actual materials that US Servicemen would have watched when first recruiting and going to the Philippines.
I really wanted to explore this idea of, "What would someone who knows very little about the Philippines and who might be going there for the first time as a new recruit for the military learn? What would their mindset be? What would they be encouraged to think and how to behave?" That's how a lot of this came about. I worked with a great visual researcher based in Toronto, Erin Chisholm, and I would tell her, "Oh, this is what I'm looking for," and she would come up with these amazing treasure troves of archival footage that I knew had to be interwoven into the narrative.
NFS: The end credits make mention of a social media researcher as well. Could you describe what that role entails and what they were asked to do?
Raval: Part of telling the story was also looking at the different ways the story unfolded. There are obviously personal, individual experiences from each of the subjects, but then there's also the news, right? There was a particular narrative in the news regarding things were unfolding.
There was also the narrative on social media, how the general public was reacting, both negatively and positively. I wanted to capture that and be able to use the actual posts that people were putting out into the world. These are things on the internet that anyone can find. It's public, people expressing their opinions, both good and bad. I thought that was something to really look at.
NFS: The film has gone through many development grants and lab programs over the past few years. What advice would you have for nonfiction filmmakers who are trying to find their story and get a film made?
Raval: For emerging filmmakers, I would say not to wait to make your film and don't ask for permission. No one is going to come to your rescue, and you have to be really diligent and you have to persevere. When people see you starting to do it, they will start seeing how amazing it is and they will want to be part of it and help. But don't wait, because if you wait, you will be waiting forever and you will be doing a disservice to yourself and the story. I know that's easier said than done, but there are so many ways to make a film.
I recognize that I couldn't have made this film several years ago. It was something that I was able to do only because it's part of a body of work. As I make more films, they definitely don't get easier, they just get different. Maybe the budgets change, maybe the amount of crew and resources change, but essentially, it's the same experience. I have to commit to an idea and just start doing it and try as hard as I can to make it happen.
This film is just like all my other films, where even just finishing it is a challenge. Coming up with the idea how to film it, edit it, finish it, to figuring out how I'm going to release it into the world with a film festival, for instance. These are all the challenges that I think are true for all filmmakers. Thankfully there will be people along the way to help you and they might not be obvious at first, but just be open to it and ask for help when you need it and look to people to be part of your team. Don't just do it alone.
"I cannot tell you, time and time again, how many times we as filmmakers hear, 'Oh, it's very difficult to fund a film that's not in English.'"
NFS: And by saying that you couldn't have made this film several years ago, is that also because you viewed it differently or the extra input helped craft it?
Raval: I think for a lot of reasons. Several years ago, I think I would have been too intimidated to shoot a film in a different country. Just by doing that you're committing to a certain budget and a certain type of shooting. I mean, there's certainly a lot of challenges regarding the shooting of something that's not necessarily outside your door, but also choosing to make a film in a different language.
I cannot tell you, time and time again, how many times we as filmmakers hear, "Oh, it's very difficult to fund a film that's not in English," or, "Oh, we don't think audiences will respond to stories not based in the United States." It can be really aggravating and discouraging. Only now having made several films do I to understand what some of the challenges are that I'm willing to jump feet-first into.
I think it takes a little bit of time to get there. I'm not downplaying my other films, at all—I'm definitely not saying that they aren't ambitious, as every film being made is ambitious and the parameters do change—but I think this film is a product of me having made a couple films prior to this in order to get here.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.