×

Film Review: ‘Call Her Ganda’

A Filipina transgender woman’s death at the hands of a U.S. Marine exposes U.S-Philippines political tensions in PJ Raval’s skimpy doc.

Director:
PJ Raval
With:
Virgie Suarez, Meredith Talusan, Julita Laude, Naomi Fontanos.

1 hour 38 minutes

“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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Call Her Ganda'

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., April 23, 2018. (In Tribeca Film Festival — U.S. Documentary Competition.) Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Unraval Pictures production, in association with JustFilms, Ford Foundation, Fork Films, Naked Edge Films, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. (International Sales: Submarine, New York). Producers: PJ Raval, Lisa Valencia-Svensson, Marty Syjuco, Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala. Executive producers: Jim Butterworth, Daniel Chalfen, Barbara Dobkin. Co-executive producers: Jean Tsien, Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker, James Costa, Jessica Devaney, Anya Rous.

Crew: Director: PJ Raval. Writer: PJ Raval, Victoria Chalk. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Mike Simpson. Editor: Victoria Chalk. Music: Nathan Halpern, Chris Ruggiero.

With: Virgie Suarez, Meredith Talusan, Julita Laude, Naomi Fontanos.

More Film

  • Mickey Mouse waves to members of

    Spider-Man, Spicer and Splashy First-Looks: Everything We're Looking For at D23

    As if Disney hasn’t owned enough weekends this year at the box office, the biennial D23 Expo will light up Anaheim, Calif. over the next three days to celebrate the content monolith. From a new Netflix-competing streaming platform to scores of movie and series reveals — along with a few hot controversies to confront — [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    'Angel Has Fallen' to Dominate Modest Box Office With $20 Million Weekend

    Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman are leading the way at the North American box office with “Angel Has Fallen” on its way to about $20 million, early estimates showed Friday. Should forecasts hold, “Angel Has Fallen” will take in about double the next title, Universal’s second weekend of raunchy comedy “Good Boys” with about $10 [...]

  • Aracne

    Sanfic Standout ‘Aracne’ Filmmakers Discuss the State of Chilean Genre

    A key project at this year’s Santiago Lab, the Santiago Intl. Film Festival industry forum for promising Latin American projects, Florencia Dupont’s “Aracne” is representative of a push from the next generation of Chilean filmmakers into genre cinema and the themes it can explore. “Aracne” turns on Beatriz, a young journalist at a small Santiago [...]

  • Eduardo Machuca

    Chile’s Eduardo Machuca Unveils Machuca Films Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    SANTIAGO, Chile – Eduardo Machuca, the former film co-ordinator of Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has launched his own production company, Machuca Films. “After 25 years at the ministry, I felt I needed to tap my creative side,” said Machuca, who is also tying the knot on Saturday (Aug. 24) with a former Sanfic staffer, [...]

  • Robert Downey Jr. Disney Legends Ceremony,

    Robert Downey Jr. Reveals He Was Busted for Smoking Pot at Disneyland

    Robert Downey Jr. celebrated his Disney Legend status by sharing the endearing tale of how the first time he visited Disneyland, he was arrested. The Iron Man actor was being honored in Anaheim at Disney’s biennial D23 convention. After a brief introduction by Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger, Downey felt he had to come [...]

  • Thandie Newton Reminiscence

    Thandie Newton Reteams With 'Westworld's' Lisa Joy on 'Reminiscence' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following her Emmy win for her performance on “Westworld,” Thandie Newton is joining the feature directorial debut of the show’s co-creator. Sources tell Variety that Newton is set to join Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson in Warner Bros.’ “Reminiscence,” directed by “Westworld’s” Lisa Joy. WB acquired the rights to the package after this year’s Berlin [...]

  • Ming-Na Wen poses at the Disney

    Original 'Mulan' Star Ming-Na Wen Weighs in on Remake's Controversy

    Ming-Na Wen, who played the leading voice role in the original 1998 version of “Mulan,” has spoken out about the recent controversy surrounding Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake, which has been co-opted by China’s authoritarian regime to attack Hong Kong protestors. “We are living in a world right now where there’s so much change and confusion [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content