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CALL HER GANDA at Hot Docs 2018

On the eve of Hot Docs 2018, director PJ Raval and producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson discuss their film Call Her Ganda, which is screening at the 2018 Hot Docs Festival and pitched at the 2017 Hot Docs Forum. They join us to discuss how the violent murder of local trans woman Jennifer Laude, by US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton during his "liberty leave" in the Philippines in 2014, reveals a still problematic post-colonial relationship between the US and the Philippines that has allowed the US military presence to act with little impunity on Philippines soil, and how this is perpetuating transphobia and gender-based violence. 

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Lisa Valencia-Svensson: For me, pitching is always a lot of fun! I think our Call Her Ganda pitch went pretty well, and helped bring more industry attention to the project. As well, my larger agenda at all times is to get everyone as used to the idea as possible of having people of colour and Indigenous people tell our own stories. I always notice who is telling whose stories to whom. So it was really important that we presented Call Her Ganda as a story being told by Filipino filmmakers, and by a filmmaking team that is majority queer as well.

HD: PJ, what has it been like to be a queer director telling a queer story, and a Filipino telling a Filipino story, at this moment in time?

PJ Raval: I think it’s important to understand intersectional points of view. Up until now, the documentary industry has been very reductive when presenting stories of various identities. You have stories that are trans, stories about of people of colour, stories about immigrants, but no one really puts them all together and thinks about how these can all intertwine and function as a whole.  This is a moment for us to speak as queer Filipino people, and that’s very specific. I have family members who live in the Philippines and are very much affected by United States’ policy, but I grew up in the US, which is a very specific point of view, which I feel has been lacking.

LVS: If I might add: I am mixed race; my mother is Filipino and my father is a white American, so my entire life has been shaped in very deep ways by the colonial experience. Those colonial dynamics are in my family whether I want them or not.  So this project has a very personal significance for me. And when I speak with other people who are mixed race, across the colonial divide, we often have a specific, very visceral understanding of racial and colonial oppression. We all have our own experiences that bring specific nuances to the way we each relate to the stories that we tell, and I feel that it is very important to acknowledge that in the documentary filmmaking field.

HD: What are the larger post-colonial relationships that you wish to address in the film?  For example, the legacy of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the effect it has on the lives of your characters.

PJR:  The last time I explained the story was to someone I prefaced it for the first time by saying: "It's about the tragedy of young people." Both Jennifer Laude and Joseph Scott Pemberton are part of a longer problematic lineage and relationship between the US and the Philippines. A lot of people don't know that the Philippines was colonized by the US over a hundred years ago, that it's had long-lasting effects, and it very much affects what took place that night when Pemberton met Jennifer: the way that she viewed him as an American Marine, and the way that he probably viewed her as a local Filipino trans woman, or just a local Filipino, period. And so we have to take into account that, when we're looking at the story, we're actually looking at something much broader than these two people—these two people are products of this imperialist past and current state.

What I’m hoping people will take away from the film is first simply learning more about the Philippines, about its history and colonial past. Because we're making and releasing this film in a very specific time, where politics around the world is really just hanging from a thread, in terms of democracy, free speech, and basic human rights, I want people to understand the need for, solidarity amongst marginalized groups, and groups that have been labeled as minorities. This film is also about the local power generated when trans women, women's rights activists, LGBT activists, and anti-US imperialism activists all come together and push for lasting change: change in policy, change of the outcome of this case, or in the outcome of how this case is being discussed and handled.  So I'm hoping people will watch the film and not only be aware, but become more civically engaged, and not politely ask for something, but demand something—be active. I’m really hoping the film will inspire, whether or not you understand the trans community, or identify with the Filipino communities, the idea that marginalized groups need to stand in solidarity and support each other to be more powerful. But at the core of it all, this film is really about a mother losing her child and the barriers she faces in seeking justice. And regardless if you are trans or Filipino, no parent should have to bury their child.

LVS: What has been interesting for me, as we have been connecting with different Filipino groups and organizations, is that the film itself, and the story it is telling, is already having an impact on Filipinos. It's rare in North America for Filipinos to see a film about ourselves, and it's very empowering and exciting when it does happen. So for Filipinos even just being able to see the film, and hopefully seeing some part of our own lives represented in the story, will give Filipinos a wonderful sense of empowerment.

Canada has the third largest diasporic population of Filipinos in the world, and Tagalog is the fifth most spoken language in the GTA and the fastest growing in the region. Despite this, Filipinos are barely represented at all in mainstream Canadian culture.

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HD: Do you have an impact campaign?

PJR: One of the things that we're trying to do this month is hold a brain trust and have some of our subjects, different activists, organizers, journalists, thought leaders both in North America and in the Philippines, starting that discussion about the potential of this film. We have a lot of ideas and interest and a desire to be actionable, but we want to make sure whatever we do is actually serving the communities that need it. So this will be a great way to gain feedback and identify what the most efficient uses are for the film.

HD: Hot Docs is celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. Where were you in 1993 and did anything about the person you were hint at the filmmaker you would become?

PJR:  I was in California, and filmmaking was definitely not on my brain. I had no intentions of being a filmmaker, but I was very politically minded. I was an angry youth, ready to scream to be heard. Bill Clinton had just taken office, and it was right after Bush Sr. so there was a shift in culture, in paying attention to environmentalism, Earth Day, Rock the Vote, young people becoming civically engaged, and I was part of that wave. I was working in art and getting interested in street photography. I don't really consider myself an activist now, I more consider myself an advocate because, to me, activism means you're out on the frontlines. I'm definitely aware of the issues, I'm trying to do my part, and film has become the tool and the vehicle through which my activism got channeled.

LVS: In 1993, I was one of the two producers of the Frequency Feminist weekly 90-minute news show on CKLN Radio, the campus/community radio station at Ryerson University in Toronto. At the time, CKLN was by far the most progressive hub of local media activism in the city, and there were a lot of people of colour involved in the programming at CKLN Radio. I was also part of the Philippine Solidarity Group based here in Toronto, which was formed by activists who had left the Philippines due to their participation in anti-Marcos dictatorship struggles, and worked in solidarity with the revolutionary movements back home in the Philippines.

The other thing that was happening in 1993 was that I was coming out as queer. I came together with other Filipino lesbians and we formed a group called Babaylan (whose history we reference in Call her Ganda). We made a banner and took it to all the protests, and made sure that people knew we were Filipino and queer and also protesting various injustices. We were very intersectional in that way. So, wow, I guess in some ways nothing has really changed in my life. I watch some of the protest scenes in our film and I'm really reminded of the organizations and work I was involved in 25 years ago! Since then, I have gained a lot of skills and experience in the documentary realm, but I'm always trying to use whatever I know, and whatever I have access to, to contribute towards struggles for justice. So now with this film, I want to aim as high as we can with our release and distribution. I want the story of Jennifer Laude, the story of Filipinos' fierce resistance to exploitation and strength in fighting for a truly just world, to reach as far and wide as it can.


Transcription by Ilse Kramer. Interview by Madelaine Russo.


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