PJ Raval’s documentary Call Her Ganda is an indictment not only of the court decision on the death of Filipina transgender woman Jennifer Laude — one that lowered the sentence of American serviceman Scott Pemberton from murder to homicide — but also of the historical inequality between empire and its colonies, posing yet again the question whether the genocide committed under such circumstances may ever be framed according to the language of reparation available in the present. The case then becomes an opportunity for imperial rule to be interrogated in contemporary terms, and cinema tells the story of how a decolonial future, where emancipated subjects are able to articulate for themselves the just society they deserve, may also be allegorized.
How does cinema proceed to delineate the anatomy of murder, at the same time that a pervading neo-colonial condition is remembered to account for the loss of Jennifer’s life? The design of the documentary is perspicaciously told from the gender that was violated, and this decision to ground the pursuit of justice from a woman’s perspective imbues the film with a sensibility that can only be feminist in its recognition of the personhood that must be valued against the forces and structures which limit her capabilities as a subject.
(Still photo courtesy of PJ Raval)
A mother narrates how a trans daughter affirms herself into the beauty that will only be negated by death. The sister is anxious about her queer child, after what her trans sibling had suffered. Jennifer’s lawyer recalls how she had to struggle to earn a degree in university; she could not bear seeing her family remain in poverty, an aspiration shared with Jennifer herself. A Filipina American trans journalist based in New York comes home to document the case. She speaks to Jennifer’s sisters at work, and writes about a trans girl in Olongapo and how she works. A Filipina trans activist chronicles the history of trans women in the country prior to empire, and describes how imperial architectonics have relegated her kind of women to the margins of the post-colony.
These women tell their stories, with Jennifer as premise of the telling. For the most part, they converse, to commiserate, at times disagreeing on certain terms of the case, but in the end, their narratives only posit a common grievance. In the end, what Call Her Ganda‘s contribution is an insight on where empire might begin its admission of guilt. From one testimony to another, the film can’t tell us enough how justice may begin to be served; empire must concede to the women of the colony. Women bore the profoundest agonies of the wars that stole our land and seas. The intruders raped and killed them. If their lives were spared, they bodies were indentured to labor through the promise of enlightenment and modernity. With this intimate knowledge of the collective trauma that pains the country, it is no wonder that the women of the colony are the first to emancipate themselves. They very well know that their gender is the gender of the colony. Babaylans launch a revolt. The women of Malolos demand to be educated. Women have decolonized their minds long before republics are imagined by men.
(Still photo courtesy of PJ Raval)
Jennifer Laude’s murder intensifies the call to decolonize further the gender of the colony. Not all women have been emancipated. Trans women were left out, even by their cisgender sisters. Call Her Ganda reminds us that the justice that remains to be served fundamentally exposes the cisheteropatriarchal basis of imperial violence. The genital predicament at the center of the crime against the subaltern woman is a question that is deeply embedded in white masculine privilege. It is hoped that the critique of such regime of truth was activated by the evidentiary consciousness of the women who speak in the documentary. The gender of this critique can only be trans, and I, too, in the name of my sister, am seeking justice.