The murder of a transgender woman in the Philippines set off a battle involving jurisdiction over the American Marine charged with the killing. The issue: will he get away with the crime by virtue of protection by the American military of men accused on Philippines territory? “Call Her Ganda,” directed by PJ Raval, explores the matter in an ambitious and affecting, if sometimes repetitive documentary.
The case is tainted by hostility toward transgender women. The Marine in the situation is Joseph Scott Pemberton, 19, who was on leave in Olongapo City. What appears to have happened is that he picked up 26-year-old Jennifer Laude when he thought she was a woman. Finding she was transgender, he apparently grew angry. After she was found dead, he was charged with murder under local law.
Running through the film is a portrait of the victim—the title “Ganda” means beautiful in the Tagalog language—who was indicated to be a sex worker and shown seeking to entice men. The case mushroomed into a test of whether American servicemen could be prosecuted under local law. For the United States, it became a test of whether the military could have jurisdiction over its servicemen.
The inflammatory Pemberton matter remains unresolved—the U.S. military seized custody--and the film demonstrates how the quest for justice has ignited local public opinion and fed into the larger picture of the relationship between the U.S. military and the government of the Philippines.
But “Call her Ganda” also shows the human side of transgender and how it is regarded. Leading the fight for justice is the victim’s mother, Julia “Nanay” Laude, who is seen appealing on behalf of her murdered daughter. We see the lawyer Virgie Suarez fighting the legal battle, and also in the fight is transgender investigative journalist Meredith Talusan, striving to make the facts of the case widely known.
Through the ongoing battle Jennifer Laude emerges as an important symbol as well as a tragic victim. Reviewed September 22, 2018.