Jennifer Laude documentary “Call Her Ganda” is required viewing

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“Call Her Ganda” is a documentary that follows the murder trial against US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was accused of killing transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude in 2014. Photo from CALL HER GANDA/WEBSITE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On Oct. 11 of each year, members of the LGBT community across the globe observe Coming Out Day. For many, coming out is an act of activism — a reminder to the rest of the world that queer people exist in in all shapes and forms. For others, Oct. 11 is a holiday to celebrate the strides made by activists and the resulting increased societal acceptance of LGBTs through the decades.

Yet just four years ago, on the very same day, transgender woman Jennifer Laude was killed in a motel in Olongapo City. U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton admitted to strangling Laude upon discovering that the woman he was about to sleep with was born male.

Laude’s death was by no means the first case of SOGIE-based violence in the Philippines. But as her family pursued a case against Pemberton, thus exposing the impunity enjoyed by U.S. soldiers under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the continuing grip of neo-colonialism on the country, it created a political and media firestorm, bringing to the general public, perhaps for the first time, the deadly persistence of homophobia and transphobia.

“This was a watershed moment for the trans community,” says transgender activist Naomi Fontanos in the documentary, “Call Her Ganda.” “For the first time, people were seeing us.”

“Call Her Ganda,” directed by Filipino-American filmmaker PJ Raval, covered the case until the court decision that ruled Pemberton guilty of homicide in December of 2015. It follows a cast of unyielding women — Laude’s mother Julita and sister Marilou, the family’s lawyer Atty. Virgie Suarez, Fil-Am journalist Meredith Talusan, and Fontanos — as they went head to head with some of the most powerful institutions in the world.

On the eve of the fourth anniversary of Laude’s death, activists, students, and more gathered at the UPFI Cine Adarna for a screening of the film, organized by the NGO Dakila, together with Youth Against Sexual Harrassment, UP Babaylan, and Filipino Freethinkers.

Before the show, those in attendance lit candles and took a moment of silence to remember Jennifer. In attendance were Fontanos and Suarez, along with the film’s producer Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala.

The film was met with a round of applause from the audience, as it expertly tells the personal story of the Laude women, weaving Jennifer’s life and death with the lives of her remaining family, her sisters and mother, while also revealing the long and complex relationship of the U.S. and the Philippines that made and continues to make the search for justice difficult.

Though Pemberton was found guilty of homicide and ordered by the Olongapo Regional Trial Court to be imprisoned in New Bilibid Prison, the VFA ensured that Pemberton remained under U.S. jurisdiction. He is currently detained in a U.S.-guarded camp while the case remains pending in the Supreme Court.

“This case ... the film, is all about the relationship between the mother and child,” said Suarez at the panel discussion after the screening. “[But it’s also about] the inequality between and among people, it's the inequality between and among nations.”

callherganda at UP5990.jpg “Call Her Ganda” producer Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala and Laude family lawyer Atty. Virgie Suarez at the candle-lighting ceremony before the Oct. 10 screening of the film. Photo by BOY CABRIDO

But perhaps most jarring about viewing the film on Coming Out Day is how, through the perspectives of Fontanos and Talusan, and the close friends and confidants of Laude, the documentary sheds light on the plight of transgender women in the Philippines, who are excluded from society through discrimination and pushed towards niche industries.

In the film, Fontanos tells of friends who have had to do sex work — just as Jennifer and her friends did — for survival, while Talusan ruminates over how her moving to the States at 15 years old might have been the only thing that saved her from suffering the same fate.

The eye-opening film is a much-needed resource for understanding these harsh truths, and as a reminder that the Laudes’ fight for justice is not yet over. This is something that the filmmakers and activist groups involved in the film are very much aware of.

02 Still2_CHG_NanyMeredith.png A still from the film where transgender Fil-Am journalist Meredith Talusan interviews Jennifer Laude's mother, Julita Laude. Photo from CALL HER GANDA/WEBSITE

The film was premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and brought to various documentary and LGBT film festivals in the U.S. In the Philippines, it made its debut at the 14th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival. Now, plans are being made to bring the documentary to more people, including residents of Olongapo City where sex work is rampant and the effects of the VFA are easily felt due to its proximity to the Subic Bay Naval Base.

“[Dakila is] planning a lot of screenings in micro cinemas, in schools, NGOs, and we're also going to Olongapo,” said Magsanoc-Alikpala. “In the US, [we’re trying to] reach out to the capital, I think there's something scheduled already for screening among congressmen and senators.”

“We'd like to bring this film to the community,” said Suarez. “Gusto natin dalhin sa kamalayan ng komunidad itong issue ng Laude [family] … Maganda magkaroon ng discussion. Sa eskuwelahan, sa komunidad, sa lahat ng pwedeng espasyo.”

As Coming Out Day comes and goes, we remember those who are still unable to out of fear of ending up with the same fate as Jennifer. We remember the transgender women who continue to work for survival while holding on to the hope that their clients do not turn out to be another Pemberton. We remember Jennifer Laude.