PJ Raval Brings Philippines Transgender Case to the Big Screen

Jennifer Laude's alter. Photo courtesy of PJ Raval, director of "Call Her Ganda."
"I want Americans to watch this for several reasons: they need to know the history, because it involved their country."

UPDATE: Call Her Ganda premieres on PBS’ POV program Monday, July 1, 2019, co-presented by CAAM

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Call Her Ganda is the latest documentary by PJ Raval. The film focuses on Jennifer Laude, a Filipino transgender woman who was murdered in the Philippines by then 19-year-old U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton. The film highlights voices from community, including attorney Virgie Suarez, transgender journalist Meredith Talusan, and Laude’s mother, Julita Laude.

Through the documentary, Raval reveals the dark side of the U.S.-Philippines relations—including the role that the U.S. military has historically, and currently, plays there, where military personnel have operated with impunity.

Raval’s film, which premiered at Tribeca earlier this year, will be in theaters starting in New York City on Friday, September 21, 2018. It will open in Los Angeles Friday, September 28, 2018, and then starting in San Francisco on Friday, October 12. See the film’s website for screening information. (CAAM helped fund the film during the research and development phase).

The Filipino American and queer filmmaker shares the challenges he faced making a film in the Philippines, and his hope for telling more diverse stories in the wake of the success of Crazy Rich Asians. Raval, who is based in Austin, TX, also talks about the need for filmmaking communities and the support for independent documentarians and artists.

-Momo Chang

Filmmaker PJ Raval.

Can you talk about where you grew up, and what that was like?

I grew up in Central California in a small, country- suburban town called Clovis. And if you’re familiar, at least in the 80s when I was growing up, Clovis was very small, very white, very conservative. It definitely was challenging growing up queer and Filipino American in that area. And I know a lot of people think of California being this liberal hub of metropolitan cities and beaches. Clovis is not that. It’s largely agricultural, and a small town.

How did you become interested in being a filmmaker?

I wasn’t the kind of kid who watched movies and said, “One day I want to be  a filmmaker.” I actually mostly studied visual art. As a child, I really enjoyed studio art. Eventually, when I went to college, I double majored in molecular biology and visual art. It’s not like one outdid the other. I actually got both degrees and even worked as a lab scientist for a little bit. Eventually, the passion of art just took over. And I found filmmaking through there.

Any thoughts on your experience making and showing Call Her Ganda so far?

Making this film has been an incredible experience for a number of reasons. Not only because I felt very connected and moved by those fighting under the name of Jennifer Laude, but also for me, as a filmmaker, I found a new artistic voice. And, making work in the Philippines as a Filipino American from a Filipino American perspective has been really life-changing. I feel even more connected to my parents’ homeland, but more importantly, I’m able to fully embrace the kind of complexity and multi-faceted identity that I hold. Oftentimes, people want you to be one thing. They want you to be Asian, they want you to be queer, they want you to be an American. In this film, I was able to explore all of these things together. It’s been really incredible. For a while, the film industry has pigeonholed me as a queer filmmaker. I think now people are realizing, oh, he’s also Asian American. He’s also Filipino American. It’s nice to be able to make a film that embraces the complexity of my own personal identities.

What were some of the challenges in making the film?

I would say one of the largest challenges was making a film overseas. It just naturally asks for more resources. That usually means it’s more expensive, it takes a little bit longer. You can’t just open your door and walk outside and just start filming. It presents itself with a series of challenges. But I think the biggest challenge, to be quite honest, was whether I had the confidence to do this. I recognized early on how large in scope this film might be, and how important it would be for so many people. I don’t think I could have made this film a couple of years ago. I needed to make a few films first before I got to this point. Even screening the film—I did a sneak preview screening of the film on Monday in New York—even just standing in front of audiences, and answering questions, I’m more comfortable at putting myself out there and risking failure that I haven’t before. That comes along with more experience under my belt now.

Who do you hope to reach?

Right now, I’m hoping Americans will watch this film, in particular, thinking about my U.S. release that’s about to happen on Friday. I want Americans to watch this for several reasons: they need to know the history, because it involved their country. Growing up in the U.S educated in the public school system, I didn’t learn any of this in the history books.

I never realized the most Filipinos killed on their own soil was at the hands of American soldiers. Part of us understanding where we are today, we have to understand a part of our past. And I think this is a past that has been overlooked and misunderstood. So there’s that.

The other reason I want people to see it is because it’s still current. Pemberton is still awaiting his appeal and the Visiting Forces Agreement [an agreement between a country and a foreign nation to allow military forces in the country] is still in effect. If people know this, then maybe there’s a way to still change the final outcome.

Lastly, the reason I want everyone want to see this is because of the current state we’re in. People are recognizing that they can’t necessarily rely on their elected leaders. I think people who are marginalized and belong to marginalized communities feel the effect when systems are broke. This story is a shining example of those marginalized communities rising up, speaking out and taking action, and demanding to be heard. I think that’s something we need to practice here in the U.S. right now. I think it’s incredibly relevant, and if anything, it’s incredibly inspiring.

Can you talk more about the various filmmaking communities that you’re a part of? What kind of role does it play in your career?

I’m a part of several filmmaking communities. I think we’re in a time when filmmakers are taking action. I’m a part of A-Doc which is amazing. I’m also a part of Firelight Media, which is really great. I’m part of a queer producers collective. I think these communities are amazing because it allows you to feel connected to a larger community online. That’s always good because making films is such a lonely experience—or it can be—so it’s nice to be able to send an SOS out into the social media ether. It’s also providing a sense of not only community, but a sense of mentorship, which I feel has been largely missing in our filmmaking community. Like the fact that on A-Doc you can throw out a question, and someone as seasoned and experienced as Grace Lee can reply. It’s giving access to people that you might not normally have.

Great. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think we’re also living in an amazing moment, particular where Asian Americans are demanding their visibility and I think seeing the success of Crazy Rich Asians proves that. But I hope they extend it to everything else. I hope that means they also support an independent doc such as mine. I hope they’ll go see a performance, or music, or a dance piece. In general, the arts is something that Asian American communities have not been good at supporting. I think now’s the time that we need to keep that momentum going. Yes, you saw a big Hollywood feature. What else are you doing? Who else are you supporting? Show up. Even just showing up, buying a ticket, liking something, retweeting, all of that uplifts someone in that community. When you uplight one person, you’re also uplifting everyone else in that community.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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