A Case Study in Decolonial Documentary: Call Her Ganda
From the Series: Ethnocine
This series is a collaboration between SCA's Screening Room and the Ethnocine Collective whose members are Elena Guzman, Emily Hong, Miasarah Lai, Laura Menchaca Ruiz, Mariangela Mihai, and Natalie Nesvaderani. The series was envisioned by Mariangela, organized and produced by Elena and Natalie, and supported by Emily, Miasarah, and Laura. See also our introduction.
Bad Feminist Making Films is a podcast produced in collaboration with Rhiza Collective that features conversations with feminist filmmakers who are changing the industry. Bridging the academic and filmmaking worlds, our series embraces Roxane Gay’s (2014) idea of the “bad feminist” by acknowledging that we are flawed human beings doing work that is necessarily imperfect, collaborative, and processual. Rather than expecting to have all the answers, we build community with other filmmakers, lift up their personal stories, and reflect together on the mistakes and the hard-earned successes of our work. The BFMF episodes curated for this Screening Room series will focus on strategies for using the podcast as a teaching tool, outlining episode themes and teaching methods that instructors can use to foster dialogue about doing decolonial film work in educational settings.
What does it mean to decolonize film not just in theory, but in practice? In this episode we speak with filmmaker PJ Raval, who recently led an all-Filipino directing and producing team to create Call Her Ganda (2018), which tells the story of three women intimately invested in justice for Jennifer Laude, a Filipina trans woman who was brutally murdered by a U.S. Marine; together they galvanize a political uprising, pursue justice, and take on hardened histories of U.S. imperialism. We speak with PJ about how he came to realize his responsibility to work on this project, the process of creating a transnational production team with the depth of experience and sensitivity necessary to execute it across borders, and what he learned about U.S.–Philippine colonial history and himself along the way.
We thank Erica Kaunang for transcribing this podcast episode.
Gay, Roxane. 2014. Bad Feminist: Essays. New York: Harper.
Raval, PJ. 2018. Call Her Ganda. 93 Min.
Interlude: You're tuned into Full Service radio.
[00:00:30] Maggie Lemere: From Full Service Radio, this is Bad Feminists Making Films, a podcast presented by Rhiza and Ethnocine Collectives. We're your hosts Maggie Lameer and Emily Hong. And we'd like to welcome you back to our podcast: a show where we talk to bad feminist filmmakers who are confronting and changing the male-dominated film industry.
[00:00:51] Emily Hong: On today's show, we focus on a case study in decolonial documentary: the all-Filipino directing and producing team behind Call Her Ganda. With us today, we have the film's director and producer PJ Raval. Maggie, could you tell us a bit about why today's theme on decolonizing film—why is that important for us?
[00:01:15] Maggie Lemere: Well, we've been talking about this a lot for the last months and years. I think there is this deep frustration with a film industry that is so dominated by white dudes in Brooklyn and New York—people who have the resources, the privilege, the access, and feel like they have the right to tell other people's stories without really questioning what that means. And also not really meaningfully collaborating and questioning their own assumptions of how those stories get told. And so feminism and anti-racism and all of these other movements need to be connected and work together. And so part of feminist filmmaking for us is also decolonial filmmaking.
[00:01:56] And I'm really interested in how can we tell stories that sort of challenge this power dynamic and differential, where it's us telling the story of the "other." And probably not telling the story in as powerful of a way or a nuanced of a way, and also kind of thinking about the limitations of, even this idea of empathy—which sometimes gets also conflated with sympathy and really, what does solidarity mean.
[00:02:25] And this other idea around, how the audience of films should be, people like the people who are making films, so that they can feel a certain way. I think there's just so much that we can untangle it today. And I'm so glad that we have PJ with us. What has been sparking your interest in this topic, Emily?
[00:02:44] Emily Hong: I think for me, the history of documentary film has been so deeply tied up with anthropology and as an anthropologist, I think about the way that, since the beginning documentary has always been about ways of representing the 'other,' right?
[00:03:12] There's never, it's not until, sadly, recently that that's been challenged and really problematized. And so I think, for me personally, thinking about decolonizing film is something that speaks to me as an anthropologist, because I think the more colonial the history of your craft is, the more you need to do the work. And it's, not like a one-time thing, right? It's like an—decolonizing is an everyday practice that's never really going to end. And I think also as a multiracial person whose family history comes from both sides of the colonial equation, thinking about what it looks like to do that work is, is really critical.
[00:04:03] So today, we have an amazing guest and we're going to get into more about this. I think why we wanted to invite PJ to talk about this film today is that, we could talk about decolonizing documentary theoretically, and many people do that.
[00:04:23] I mean, there's lots of panels about it at film festivals and different events, but to actually talk about, a real, case study example of what it looks like to do that work and what are some ways that we can think about doing that. And so that's what I'm really excited about for today's episode.
[00:04:41] So Maggie, could you introduce our guest for today?
[00:04:45] Maggie Lemere: It would be my pleasure and my honor. Today we have PJ Raval. He is more recently known as an award-winning filmmaker than he is as an ex-scientist, which I totally want to ask you about PJ. That was fun to read. He was born to immigrant parents and grew up in a small white conservative town in California, Central Valley, and this outsider experience helped greatly shape his filmmaking practice. His work explores the overlooked subcultures and identities within the already marginalized LGBTQ community. He's been named one of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces of Independent Film and Out Magazine's Out 100. PJ discovered film and video after working with photography and media, art, installation art early in his career and has gone on to work on so many films that, frankly, I wish we had the time to discuss today. I saw that you were involved in a feature film in Gaza, for example—fascinated to hear about that. Maybe that will come up today. PJ, thank you so much for joining us.
[00:05:45] Do you wanna go ahead and tell us a little bit more about your new project?
[00:05:49] PJ Raval: Sure. Well, thank you for having me. So I directed and am one of the producers of a feature documentary called Call Her Ganda. And the film is about Jennifer Laude and the events surrounding her when she was discovered dead in a motel room, in Olongapo City, in the Philippines, with the prime suspect being a U.S. Marine. And the media really started paying attention to this crime when local authorities discovered that they couldn't arrest the Marine because, for those who are unfamiliar, the Philippines is a former colony of the United States.
[00:06:25] And so I think a lot of people would argue that the relationship is still between colonizer and colony or neocolony. One of the things that exists between the two nations is this agreement called the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows the United States to retain jurisdiction of their military servicemen if they're ever accused of a crime. So as soon as that kind of came out, the crime kind of really; spurred a lot of activists into action and that's kind of what I start following. And all the subjects in the film are women. Many of them are trans activists, women's rights activists. Some of them are anti-U.S. imperialist activists. So I also look at that; kind of coalition I would say, the kind of solidarity that exists amongst those groups and how they, essentially get their government to, go after the Marine and hold him accountable.
[00:07:31] Maggie Lemere: I read a little bit about how you came to this story and the process of you . . . I think thoughtfully questioning, "am I the right person to tell this story?" Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you came to the decision to work on this project?
[00:07:47] PJ Raval: Yeah. So funny enough, I happened to be, well, not funny enough, but coincidentally, I happened to be in the Philippines in late 2014.
[00:07:57] And I'm Filipino American. I'm queer and Filipino American born and raised in the United States, as you mentioned, and I had never really spent much time in the Philippines at all. I think I had always felt a longing to spend time in the Philippines and kind of figure out my own connection to it.
[00:08:17] But I never really had much opportunity whenever I had gone in the past. It had been, as a small child or maybe with my family. And even though that's great, it's . . . it kind of limits what you can actually explore. So in late 2014, I was fortunate enough to be invited by a filmmaker; and film scholar, Nick Deocampo, who's written some amazing books and made some equally amazing films.
[00:08:44] And, he invited me to come for the Pink Quezon City Film Festival that he was; restarting. This festival, apparently had existed in previous forms throughout the years, but I think it had been on hiatus for a little bit. And, and part of what revitalized it was Quezon City; an area of Manila.
[00:09:11] So for those who are familiar with New York, it's like saying Brooklyn. So Quezon City, the current mayor of Quezon City at the time was interested in making Quezon City kind of like a sanctuary city for LGBT people in Asia, which I found was really interesting, right. Because when we think about Asia as a whole, there really aren't many places that come to mind. And in fact, I don't think there's a single country in Asia that has any kind of legislation right now that's actually, some kind of anti-hate bill or something like that. So it was fascinating, and I thought, "Oh, here's my opportunity. I'm going to go there and screen a couple documentaries." And, as you mentioned in the introduction, all the work that I do is LGBT-oriented, LGBTQ plus. So I was excited because I thought, "Oh, this is going to be my opportunity to show some of my work, be in the Philippines, discover the Philippines," but also because of this festival and because of the kind of current, climate, what they're trying to do, I'm also going to meet a lot of the queer community, which for me, was like, perfect.
[00:10:19] Like this could not be a better introduction to the Philippines and an introduction to me as a filmmaker. But when I got there, I discovered a country really torn and, and a queer community that was definitely outraged over the death of Jennifer Laude. And as I mentioned, Jennifer Laude was a trans woman that was discovered dead in the Philippines, in Olongapo City. And the way that she was discovered, the crime was just very, very brutal and heinous. She was beaten very badly from behind. She was strangled and then her head was plunged into a toilet bowl. And she died officially through asphyxiation and drowning. And I think the discovery of that really made the trans activists at the time fired up, like they had hit a breaking point and said, "this is enough. We've got to stop this."
[00:11:16] And they mobilized very quickly. So when I was in the Philippines, what was interesting was in the news, there was definitely an unfolding storyline, like, okay, well, this trans person was found dead. Now we know the name. Now we know who's the suspect. And as this was going on, you started seeing people mobilizing and taking to the streets and, and really using social media as a form of activism, which was great.
[00:11:40] But that's about the extent of what I had seen, which is probably what anyone, who pays attention to the news or, pays any attention to LGBT culture in the Philippines would probably get, but while I was there for the film festival, I got asked to be on a panel for LGBT rights and just give my perspective as someone who's Filipino American living in the United States. And I happened to be alongside one of the key prosecuting attorneys that represented the family. And she spoke about Jennifer Laude and she spoke a lot about the family, and kind of really put it into perspective of why this is not, and in her own words, why this is not a simple case of murder.
[00:12:25] Even in the film, I have a great quote that she says, well, "in order to really understand what's happening here, you have to understand the history between the United States and the Philippines, because this is not a simple case of murder." Right. And so I took that to heart and thought, "okay, well, this is representative of so much more. And to be quite honest, I don't even know what that is." And it made me start realizing how little I knew about the Philippines in the first place. Shamefully to say, even though I'm Filipino American, I knew very little about the Philippines. I knew very little about the history and to my credit, I have to bring up, it's also because I was taught very little and I was encouraged to know very little and I was also encouraged to think, certain ways, right? Like that the United States saved the Philippines from Spain, for those who don't know, the Philippines was colonized by Spain for four hundred years. I mean, that's so like centuries.
[00:13:30] And so I kind of grew up with these ideas of the Philippines and the ideas of the United States. And I think I recognized this all in front of me while I was talking to this lawyer, Virgie Suarez on the panel and realizing like, wow, I really don't know, much here, I do know about the common narratives behind hate crimes.
[00:13:59] Especially being a queer person, like you see it all the time. Right. In terms of, yeah, just in terms of violence towards, towards queer individuals, women, trans people. So while I was on the panel, someone suggested I actually make this into my new film. And, I responded very quickly and was like, "yes, someone absolutely needs to make this into a film. I don't know if it should be me" is what I said.
[00:14:25] And, I said, "I'm Filipino American. I don't even live here in the Philippines. Like maybe someone already on the ground, maybe a trans activist, like someone definitely should do this and they should start doing it now right before the trial begins in everything kind of goes into full swing. Like, someone should start."
[00:14:43] But the more that I spoke to Virgie, the lawyer representing the family, and the more that I spoke to a lot of the trans activists and many of them who had just seen some of my films, it started to make sense to me that this would become the next film that I would work on for a lot of the reasons—one of them, as I mentioned, I knew very little, so I said, okay, well, this is my opportunity to learn more for personal motivation, but also recognizing I'm the person who probably needs to see this film. So I need to start making a film that I want to see for myself because I recognize what it could do for me, right, in the process of, in the process of watching something like this and understanding it.
[00:15:27] So. So I went back to the United States, I told Virgie, I'm very interested in making this into a film. And I said, the very first thing I would need to do in order to really commit is to have the family's blessing and support. And, I forgot to mention, like on the panel, Virgie showed clips of Nanai, and Nanai in Tagalog means mother.
[00:15:53] So Jennifer's mother—and Jennifer's mother was so passionate, like on camera and she was just so direct. And you could just see that she had like this real raw kind of honesty. And Nanai is from, a very small village. She's actually from the area that was hit very hard in one of the recent years' typhoons where there was a lot of devastation, and she's not formally educated in any way, but she was definitely speaking her truth and you could feel it. And she basically said, ever since Jennifer was born, I knew she was, my beautiful child and how could someone do this? And I'm not going to, and basically saying, I'm not going to stop until someone is held accountable for this. So I knew from the beginning that if I were going to make anything, that Nanai, Jennifer's mother was going to be like the heart of the story.
[00:16:47] So I needed to get her permission, and blessing to do so. So Virgie helped introduce me to her. And I told her what I was thinking of doing and Virgie showed her some of my film work and then pretty quickly her and the whole Laude family signed on. And so I quickly went back and started filming.
[00:17:11] But of course, before I did that, I did consult with several friends, right. A lot of friends of mine who are Filipino or Filipino American, and I contacted them and said, "what do you think? This is such a huge story. It's also in the Philippines. Like I've never done something across the ocean, I don't know how this works" and a good friend of mine Anne Del Castillo, I will give her the credit for this.
[00:17:35] She was speaking to me about it and she said, "you absolutely need to make this film." I said, "okay, well, why do you think?" And she said, "well, for all the personal reasons you've been talking about, but then she said, you also need to recognize your privilege as an American."
[00:17:49] And she said, "if you can use that privilege, to highlight this story and really show what's problematic about it. And as an American use your resources that you have available to you," she said, "You can really make something meaningful. And something powerful." And she said, "so this isn't something you should do. This is something you have to do." And she said, "if you don't do it, I don't know who will."
[00:18:17] And that's . . . and as soon as she said that, that struck a nerve in me and I was like, "okay, you're right. This is, this is true." Because someone in the Philippines probably won't have the same resources. And realistically, if they make a film and put it out there and it's being critical of the United States, it's probably going to be received as something that's more expected.
[00:18:39] But me as a Filipino American speaking, also as an American, being able to look at it, maybe that would hold a different kind of weight. And so, after she said that to me, that's when I really thought, okay, this is, this is what I should do next.
[00:19:00] Emily Hong: That's an incredible story. I wondered if you could say a bit about how you went from deciding to do that story to deciding to have an all-Filipino producing team. Was it something about your previous experiences filmmaking or did it have to do with the particular subject of this film that drew you to make that decision and, how has working with that team shaped the film in ways that maybe you didn't anticipate?
[00:19:34] PJ Raval: Yeah, I mean, so, as I mentioned, the first thing I had to do was get the blessing of the subjects. And then the second thing that I knew I had to do was find a very strong, local producer and start building out my team. Cause I was very conscious of not wanting to feel like I was going into this story and this area and imposing my point of view.
[00:19:57] And, and recognizing I am a foreigner in this country. And so making 'this country' being the Philippines right. And making sure that I'm not just being respectful, but honoring what's actually there and, and not trying to present something in an incorrect and inaccurate way.
[00:20:19] Trying as best as I can to make sure that I think the intentions there are correct. So the very first thing I did was after I told several friends was think about, well, who could help me with this, with this project? And, I was introduced to Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, who is amazing, and she's a producer and TV journalist, and she's made some incredible work. And she was just incredibly instrumental in the making of this film. And I remember having like a two-hour-long, like, Skype session with her, where I was just kind of like, this is what's happening. This is what I think I want to do with it. This is how I would take it.
[00:20:56] And, and I think she herself understood the importance of everything so quickly, that she signed on right away and was like, okay, yes, we need to do this because there are very little opportunities to be able to talk about these subjects, in a way that we can present it through a story that everyone can understand.
[00:21:22] Right. So I think she really understood that point quickly and signed on. And then shortly after, I through mutual friends, I met Marty Syjuco who is also Filipino. Born and raised in the Philippines lives and lives in the U.S. Now. And I pretty much went after him and said, you know, I need your help with this project.
[00:21:45] And then eventually brought on Lisa Valencia-Svensson, who's, Filipino Canadian. and it was interesting because each of the producers, so there's technically three producers on the film plus myself. And each of them, I think, bring something very different. But each of us have a personal connection to the material.
[00:22:05] And I think, I think it does change things because there's a different relationship with the material. And I think it does... I think you do see it in the film because there's certain access that we were given. And maybe even certain questions we're allowed to question, you know, where, because we're able to gain a certain amount of trust, from, from the subjects and, and, you know, as we started filming because we started filming with Nanai-- Jennifer's mother-- already I knew that was different because she hadn't let many cameras film her other than making a couple of press statements.
[00:22:46] And so I think from the start, it, it was, it felt very different. And then also being in the Philippines was great. We started working with a lot of local crew as well. But I think-- and it was interesting because, a lot of the times I was introduced as a Filipino American filmmaker, there was something there where you could tell the subjects would be like, [surprised] "Oh, a Filipino American filmmaker!", you know, like, "Oh, so you're from the United States?", you know, kind of thing.
[00:23:14] And there was definitely a little bit of, "wow, you have an interest in this!" And I'd say, "yes, I very much so," So yeah, I think there was definitely. A benefit and advantage to having an all Filipino producing team. And I should point out that, you know, a large, you know, many of us identify as queer.
[00:23:36] And I think that means something too, you know, so yeah.
[00:23:42] Emily Hong: A quick follow up question. Cause you mentioned that your identity, your sort of dual identity as Filipino American came up when you were making the film, given that I think you mentioned two of the producers born and raised in the Philippines and the other sort of in the diaspora-- you and, and I think Lisa-- Did you have different orientations to the film or different perspectives because of, you know, your connections to the Philippines or the perspectives that you brought?
[00:24:12] PJ Raval: I would probably say so. I mean, I think because we all have our, each individual lived experiences-- we're coming from different perspectives, perspectives to begin with. Lisa for instance, I didn't realize that she had had a very activist feminist kind of, background. I knew her as a producer, but it was interesting as we were, you know, making the film to discover more-- that she was part of a lot of different organizations and groups and, even just the other day I met a friend of hers, who's now become a friend of mine. And she was telling me these stories about how, you know, Lisa was out on the front line, protesting something, and it was very clear that, to me, that she's coming from a very, activist, background.
[00:24:55] Whereas, you know, Kara, for instance, the, you know, the producer in the Philippines, she's coming from a more journalistic background and her mother, was a very well regarded, journalist, and newspaper editor, named Letty Magsanoc, who's kind of known as the person who championed free speech in the press. Right. So I recognize that's kind of where Kara was coming from. And Marty had made a previous film in the Philippines, called Give Up Tomorrow, which recently has gotten a lot of attention again. So I kind of knew everyone was going to come from a little bit of a different perspective. And that would be helpful because a story like this, it's so complex and it involves so many different points of view and different people, that I think it's important to be able to look at it from all the different directions. I mean, now speaking as a director, that doesn't mean I have to present it in all of those directions, but I have to understand how it can be, how it can be viewed and received, you know, and viewed through whatever lens. So that was something important. So just to give you an example, like, in, in tagalog, right, there's really no-- and to tagalog being the language of the Philippines-- there's really no gendered pronouns. So there's no, he or she-- there's just, you say the person's name and then it's, they.
[00:26:18] They right. Or them. Which already I would just argue is completely culturally, you know, advanced, right? Like progressive. So here's a great experience. Like this is the kind of, this is the language that Kara and Marty, for instance, were like raised under-- to them it's second nature. To me as a Filipino American, it blows my mind that because I was raised, you know, under English right. In, as we mentioned in a small town in, central California. So I can't imagine that kind of view of even just use of language. Like that already is different. So to me, I'm going to attach myself to that greatly.
[00:26:58] And, and yeah, so I think, I think it really does help to have, different perspectives.
[00:27:04] Emily Hong: Well with that, we are going to have to take a break, but we'll be back really soon with our guest PJ Raval.
[00:27:31] Maggie Lemere: Welcome back to Bad Feminists Making Films on Full Service Radio presented by Rhiza and Ethnocine Collectives. We're here with PJ Raval, talking about decolonial approaches to film. So PJ something I was really, intrigued by was how you talked about having Jennifer's mother's blessing, you know, being really essential.
[00:27:52] And of course, access is always so important for a filmmaker, but that can become...you're starting a journey and you don't know where you're going to end up. So I'm kind of curious about how you kind of explained your, your vision or your goals and maybe how she explained hers and how you kind of navigated probably different audiences, the Filipino audience, activist audience, the US audience-- cause you're dealing with like a transnational story with these really clear colonial-- right? I'm just really curious, like what her interest was and how you kind of continued that relationship. What made it work?
[00:28:33] PJ Raval: I think Nanai, Jennifer's mother, is just very smart and, savvy. And I think she understood that, you know, the camera can actually be a good thing cause it's going to help her get the story out there. So I think that part, she kind of understood, but what's funny is right when we started filming, I think there was a question of, "okay I said something in front of the camera, like I'm going to do laundry now." And I'd be like, "okay, we're going to film." And she'd be like, "well, why do you want to film me doing laundry?" I would say, "trust me, we, we do! We do want to film you doing laundry. Go about your day, you know, ignore us as much as possible."
[00:29:15] And then, and then, you know, she just like many other people, you know, as you continue filming, they get more comfortable and you establish your trust and then you can, you know, go a little deeper. And it wasn't until she actually saw the final film where she said, "Oh, now I understand all the things you were doing."
[00:29:32] I think, seeing it together, she finally put all the pieces together. But when we started, there was a couple of things for me that I'm very clear about and I had to make sure that, you know, it, it was understood upfront because one of the things I'm very careful about is I don't want a subject to feel like, there's any financial gain, for instance, for me, you know, filming them.
[00:29:59] And I think that's something that's very important to do, especially if you're going into a country that's very poor in comparison to the country that you're coming from. I think there's a, there's, there can be a tendency to flash, a little bit of money and some wealth, and then suddenly say, "Oh, but you're going to help me do this. Right. You're going to do this and you're gonna do this. And I really love it if you could do this".
[00:30:18] Right. And so I wanted to make it clear, like that's not, that's not happening here. Like, and I think, you know, I think a lot of documentary filmmakers, you know, do that also because, you know, paying any kind of subjects, compromises, you know, what could be happening in front of the camera.
[00:30:36] So I was very clear about that, but at the same time, I have to also be very clear about, you know, if I'm putting them in any kind of imposition, right. If I'm asking them to take time off from work to like, you know, to interview or something like that, or I'm asking them to meet us somewhere, you know, just even the travel time and the travel costs, you know, for someone like me, it might just seem very insignificant, but for someone in the Philippines, it might be very, very expensive and very, very, long of a trip.
[00:31:06] Right? So things like that, I had to be very careful about. And this is where it was really helpful to have, you know, a producer that I'm working with who's from the area. So can really make me understand, You know, what they think is reasonable and not reasonable, or what would be reasonable to compensate someone if they had to, you know, take time off from work and travel for like an hour, you know, to, meet us somewhere, something like that.
[00:31:33] Right. So all that kind of stuff was really important, but I think, you know, we tried to explain to Nanai that we're not news, right? We're not journalism in the more news, you know, in the news television kind of sense. And I think this is where also recognizing in the Philippines, the concept of documentary and nonfiction, filmmaking isn't quite what it is here in the United States. I think people now in the United States think, "Oh, it's a film. We could watch it in the theater. We could watch it on Netflix." I think people in the Philippines still think of documentary film a little bit as like news journalism. So they expect if they see a camera rolling, they expect to see that probably being aired on television the next night, if not that night.
[00:32:23] And so I was very clear of like, this is not that right. So, even though we are going to be filming these things, I want to make sure the expectation is there that, two years from now, if I'm still working on it, you know, that there isn't the, "where is this?"
[00:32:42] And I think Virgie really helped me frame it and I think the way that Virgie kind of framed it was, you know, there's different ways to help, the situation here. Like there's things that are immediate, like in front of the news camera and then there's things that are longterm. So I think that was one way to kind of one way to kind of frame the frame the project was, this is kind of like a longterm goal, right? Like this is going to be something that hopefully we create a film and then the film can be viewed over and over again, you know, for many, many times in many places, You know, unlike a newscast, which is kind of, you know, can quickly come and go, right?
[00:33:20] Like this is something that will hopefully have some longevity. And I think Nanai understood that-- but then again, you know, kind of, she was like, "why are you filming me doing laundry?" So I don't think she understood at first the personal aspects that I was going to, be invested in.
[00:33:35] But, that is something that I, you know, wanted to do.
[00:33:40] Maggie Lemere: So, I mean, you said you were mentioning this, this project, you know, it doesn't happen immediately. I think sometimes when we enter into projects where there's a grave injustice, which there clearly was, there's an incredible sense of responsibility and hopefully accountability, but it can be, as a filmmaker, I think quite daunting as well to hold that because filmmaking is just a really, tenuous experience in every sense. And as someone who's also working on films, I'm curious, like how have you held yourself in that space of accountability and, responsibility? And, it just so big and, there's so much trauma as well and a story like this.
[00:34:26] PJ Raval: Yeah. I mean, I think that's partially why I was hesitant to start working on the film in the first place. Cause I recognized, how much attention it would probably get. Or how much scrutiny it could be under or worse-- what if I make something that actually negatively, you know, affects the case or affects the way that people are thinking about it.
[00:34:49] You set yourself up for potential public failure in a very public kind of way. So, I think, you know, what really helped me make the decision to still move forward though, was I think, and, and I recognize it-- I don't think I could've made this film a couple years ago. Like I think this, for me, this is a film that I had to probably make a couple films before I got to this, because I don't think I would have had the confidence to do it, several years ago.
[00:35:18] But I saw it as just like, this is my opportunity, but then I also saw it as this is my opportunity to contribute, right? To be able to contribute to the conversation, contribute the discussion, you know, be, be able to push the needle in whatever direction that I see that it needs to be pushed.
[00:35:38] And, one of the things that's been interesting is making the film, I was very conscious about like, yes, let's have like, you know, an all-Filipino producing team. Like, wouldn't that be amazing because I haven't actually seen that. I mean, I'm sure it exists somewhere, but for me, I hadn't seen it.
[00:35:55] After a while, I forgot how big of a deal that was. Then when we premiered the film at Tribeca in April of 2018, after the screening, a young Asian woman came up to me and she said, "Oh my God, it's so inspiring to see all of you on stage together, talking about how you guys are the producing team."
[00:36:15] She's like, "we talk about it, but we never see it." And I was like, Oh yeah, I totally forgot. That is something that I've kind of been taking it for granted now because I'm like emailing and texting these people like 20 times, you know, an hour, I'm starting to overlook the significance of this, but people are starting to realize it.
[00:36:34] And so I started realizing, you know, in addition to just telling the story, the process of making the film, the way we talk about the film-- who's presenting it and representing the film is also an act of, kind of change and activism in a way, right? Because here was a young, Asian, Asian American woman who felt inspired by seeing that.
[00:36:57] And then, you know, and then also just thinking a lot about, [being a] cisgendered male, right. So I have to be really careful about the way that I'm presenting a trans individual. And making sure that, you know, I'm not, I'm also being truthful to what I think is really happening, but at the same time, not perpetuating any kind of transphobia or any kind of violence.
[00:37:18] So one of the things I also did very early on was start an advisory committee and I think this is something I recommend for every filmmaker who's working with anything where they recognize they're not fully part, but that there's different perspectives that they have to be seeing it from.
[00:37:36] So I brought on Martin Manalansan, who's an amazing scholar who writes about queer Filipino diaspora, Zackary Drucker who's one of the producers from Transparent. Zackary has been helping me a lot in terms of thinking about the distribution phase and who's seeing this film, and how it's being seen and talked about.
[00:37:59] After we, so after we premiered the film, I started realizing, well, the film is now it's own thing. So now how can we use it as a tool? And what's really big right now in documentary filmmaking is the concept of impact, right? Like, you know, okay. You make a film, how can it be used as a tool?
[00:38:19] Like who can see it, who can screen it? We started recognizing, well, one of the things we just need to do is like do community building, right? So as we watch the film, we should hold meetings-- like strategy meetings, conversations where people who watch the film come together, talk about their own, their own organizations or their own issues that they're looking at and how it's reflected either in the film or how the film can help them get some of those issues out.
[00:38:45] So we've been staging several of these, what we call brain trusts, right. This kind of like collective thinking and collective brainstorming.
[00:38:53] Even that's been really amazing cause, seeing people meet for the first time or people who might know of each other, but don't know exact details and realize they're doing very similar things-- like that's been something that's been, really incredible, but I think what's also interesting about it is it reflects the production itself.
[00:39:10] Like I had known the producers all very casually, but we never worked on anything together. Now that we have, it's kind of very clear, like there is a power to having organizing. Your production in a certain way that, it will have effects that you probably don't even realize.
[00:39:28] And I think that's partially kind of what happened-- is like we put things in motion and it just grew in, in a really great, you know, direction.
[00:39:40] Maggie Lemere: Okay. I have one last question for you to kind of bring this full circle. So you said you started this, or you said yes to this because you realized there was something you needed to resolve you.
[00:39:49] Like you had a part of this story and you were actually learning about the colonial history that you weren't necessarily aware of and how it intersects with all of these other challenges that we're facing that different people are facing and experiences. How has working on this film impacted you and; your relationship with your community?
[00:40:11] PJ Raval: Yeah, I think it's been, it's been great. It's made me feel like I actually have a community. Let's put it that way. I'm not saying that my community has to be specifically queer and Filipino American, but at the same time, why not? Why is there an expectation that I shouldn't, you know, that I shouldn't be able to walk into a room and be like, "Hey, where are the queer Filipinos in this room?" I think making a lot of work, that's been LGBTQ plus. Right. There's also been a lot of misunderstandings. And things that maybe people don't understand about Filipino culture, Filipino American culture.
[00:40:49] I think before I made this film, if you would have asked someone in the industry, what kind of work I make, they probably would have said, "Oh, he's a queer filmmaker. He makes queer films." And now I hope they will say, "Oh, he's a queer Filipino American filmmaker. And he makes queer Filipino American films."
[00:41:04] Because I recognize that I have a very unique perspective and I'm not afraid to hone in on that perspective. And for me making this film made me realize it's an advantage. It's not a disadvantage. Despite what any executive from a Hollywood studio might tell you. It's a pure advantage, right?
[00:41:23] And I do recognize now that I think any work that I make, whether or not it directly is connected to-- it's going to be in my perspective, which is coming from that. And so I'm embracing that now, and I think I'm more encouraged and interested in making more work specifically in that kind of area, rather than trying to feel like it's supposed to fit into this general, you know, canon of kind of work. It's like, it's like, no, I'm going to, I'm interested in being, you know, a Filipino, a queer Filipino American filmmaker, and these are the kinds of films I'm going to tell.
[00:41:59] Emily Hong: Thank you so much, PJ, for sharing your story and also dropping some serious knowledge about some of the really concrete practices that filmmakers can use to bit by bit address the colonial residue of documentary.
[00:42:13] So everyone should know that Call Her Ganda is currently having a theatrical release, try to catch the film whenever you can. And thank you so much, PJ, for being with us today.
[00:42:26] PJ Raval: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
[00:42:27] Maggie Lemere: And before we go, we actually want to just let you all know that Call Her Ganda will be screening in Washington DC.
[00:42:34] Next week on Wednesday, October 17th, at 7:00 PM at the Human Rights Campaign's Equality Center. PJ is going to be there to attend the screening and take your questions directly. We'd love to see you all there. You can get more information at www.callherganda.com. So once again, thank you so much for listening to Bad Feminists Making Films on Full Service Radio.