By Rica Arevalo
Straight from the airport, Fil-Am documentary director PJ Raval went to the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where we met to check on the preparations of the ongoing 2018 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. His third documentary, Call Her Ganda, had its Philippine premiere last Saturday.
The film won this year’s Grand Jury Award outstanding documentary at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Best Documentary Audience Award at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival and Special Mention Documentary Grand Jury award at the Outfest Los Angeles.
“I have been working in the film industry for about 15 years. My first feature documentary was in 2008. It was called Trinidad,” says the LGBTQ advocate. Set in a cattle ranching town in Colorado, he followed three transgender women. “In 1968, one of the first sex reassignment surgeries was done in the town. It was a film that challenged small town stereotypes,” he revealed. The town became the sex change capital of the world. “Now, it’s called gender confirmation surgery or gender affirmation surgery,” says the Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.”
His second docu feature is Before You Know It, a portrait of three gay senior men—the aging LGBT community in the US.
A visit to the Philippines in 2014 inspired him to make Call Her Ganda. “I happened to be in the Philippines shortly after the crime was committed and I met some of the major players, including prosecuting attorney Virgie Suarez who introduced me to the Laude family,” says the University of Texas at Austin professor.
‘It is an eye-opening experience. I feel much more connected to the Philippines now.’
Jennifer Laude was a transwoman who was found dead in Olongapo City. The crime suspect was US Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton.
“The story caught a lot of attention when local authorities realized they couldn’t detain the Marine because of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” muses the 44-year-old award-winning cinematographer.
He filmed for two and a half years and had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last April. “A huge challenge was I lived in the US and I was making a film in the Philippines,” he confesses. “When you’re filming a documentary that’s unfolding, you really do not know what’s going to happen. You got to be around. The Philippines is also not the easiest place to navigate. There’s a lot of traffic and people are coming from different places.”
Growing up in the US, Raval considers doing the film a transformative experience. “It is an eye-opening experience. I feel much more connected to the Philippines now,” he said.
He has a MFA and also a double degree in Visual Arts Media and Molecular Biology from University of California, San Diego. “I was very good in science, but I also wanted to do art. Art took over and I ended up in filmmaking.”
What inspired him to be a documentary filmmaker? “It’s an amalgamation of several things. I have a background in art photography. I was very interested in street photography. But I also did a lot of portraiture,” he said. “I got interested in meeting and talking with people and presenting people and images.”
He worked in the film industry as a cinematographer. He tells the Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, “I also made narrative films, music videos, everything! But there is something about documentaries that I really like because the phrase, truth is stranger than fiction, I think it’s true.”
His parents are both Ilocano. “I think both of my parents were pretty bold and pioneering. They were some of the earliest to immigrate,” recalls the 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. “My mom migrated to Canada first then ended up in New York City. My dad migrated to New York City. That’s where they met. For my parents to meet in New York City as single people in the 1960s, I think it’s kind of a big deal. I recognize it’s a big wave of migration but for them to both leave their home country and live abroad, I think they were pretty bold, especially my mother to do that.”
Why would people come and watch his film? “I think every Filipino should see this film. The story of Jennifer Laude parallels the story of the Philippines in relation with the US. It’s unescapable,” says this recipient of American Society of Cinematographers Student Heritage Award.
“Anyone who sees the film will recognize that in order to understand Jennifer’s story, you have to understand history with the Philippines.”
Call Her Ganda will have a theatrical release in the US this September.