“Call Her Ganda,” director PJ Raval’s non-fiction investigation into the death of a Filipina sex worker at the hands of an American Marine on leave, should function as a murder mystery, courtroom drama, and exposé about the U.S.’s thorny post-colonial relationship with the Philippines. Yet with access to only one side of its central conflict, and a scattershot approach that skims over key details and points of interest, this well-intentioned documentary leaves audiences feeling like they’re only getting part of a much larger story. After its Tribeca Film Festival debut, its theatrical prospects seem slim.
In 2014, 26-year-old Filipina prostitute Jennifer Laude – known by her mother as “Ganda,” which means “beauty” – was found strangled and drowned (in a toilet) in a motel across the street from the nightclub where she plied her trade. According to both friends and security camera video, Laude was last seen in the company of 19-year-old PFC Joseph Scott Pemberton, who immediately became law enforcement’s prime suspect. Since many Filipino sex workers apparently hide their transgender status so as not to alienate potential clients, Pemberton’s possible motive wasn’t difficult to deduce — having been surprised to learn that Laude was not what he thought her to be, he killed her in a fit of humiliated rage.
That straightforward narrative is proffered by not only Laude’s mother, siblings, friends, supporters, and legal team (led by Virgie Suarez), but by “Call Her Ganda” as well. While it’s a solid theory that resulted in Pemberton’s conviction, director Raval skimps so heavily on important particulars — for example, about the physical evidence against Pemberton, or the defense mounted by his lawyers — that the case hardly seems airtight. Compounding matters, the film provides scant background about Pemberton (save for his relationship with his lesbian sister) and Laude (whose sex-worker status is obliquely called into question by some). Worse still, it fails to identify any of its speakers (we’re left to catch their names via snippets of dialogue), or explicate the Philippines’ legal differentiation between “murder” and “homicide” — a crucial point in the eventual verdict.
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In place of such basic information, “Call Her Ganda” focuses on the way Laude’s case reveals the unfairness of the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows accused American serviceman to avoid local prosecution and imprisonment, and bolt the Philippines under care of the U.S. military, if a court case isn’t brought within a year. Since that situation can be facilitated by all manner of delay tactics, the VFA appears to give Americans wide latitude to do whatever their hearts desire in the country, which naturally infuriates Filipinos and, in particular, the routinely victimized trans community.
Uncle Sam newsreel footage about the Philippines offers some superficial historical context for the two nations’ long-standing bond. However, any real discussion of why the VFA continues to flourish is largely ignored, as is the means by which objections to it helped spur the rise of controversial current President Rodrigo Duterte. Meanwhile, the director’s considerable use of TV broadcasts and social-media comments (shown graphically crowding the screen) prove to be alienating devices, underlining the remove at which the film operates – less with regards to Laude’s mother (who’s repeatedly interviewed) than to Pemberton and his representation, who are only spied in news broadcasts and photos.
Mike Simpson’s handheld cinematography and Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s mournful score are aptly seductive. And in the figure of investigative journalist Meredith Talusan (an albino transgender Filipina-American woman reporting on this ongoing tale),“Call Her Ganda” locates further intersections of the personal and the political. Even in Talusan’s case, though, in-depth portraiture is too often sacrificed in favor of expressionistic gestures that barely dig beneath the surface.