Interview with Dir. PJ Raval & Naomi Fontanos from GANDA Filipinas

Following our COVID-19 Community Support Screenings we interviewed the director of the powerful Filipino film Call Her Ganda (2018) screened in support of GANDA Filipinas (Gender and Development Advocates Filipinas) and Naomi Fontanos, Filipina trans activist, and executive director of GANDA Filipinas.

Still from Call Her Ganda (2018)

Interview with PJ Raval and Naomi Fontanos

  • How did you come to learn about Jennifer Laude, and the issues facing the trans community in the Philippines?

In December of 2014, I was fortunate enough to be invited by film auteur and scholar Nick Deocampo to travel to Manila to screen my previous two documentary features (Trinidad: Transgender Frontier and Before You Know It) for the Quezon City Pink LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Having only visited my parents’ homeland as a child, I was excited to return to the Philippines and to forge my own connections to the country and its local queer communities. But when I arrived, I discovered a country struck with grief, outraged over the death of Jennifer Laude. Jennifer’s story was slowly making the news and starting to appear in my social media threads, but the reporting lacked any reflective insights, limited to just stating police report facts. While serving on a panel about LGBTQ rights at the festival, I met Attorney Virginia Suarez who was representing the Laude family. She told us about the case and shared a clip of Jennifer’s mother, “Nanay” (tagalog for “mother”), who spoke with raw passion, demanding justice for the death of her child. It was during this moment when I truly began to understand the gravity and symbolism of Jennifer’s story. During the panel, someone suggested that a documentary about Jennifer needed to be made, and all eyes turned to me… The festival was being held to celebrate the first Quezon City Pride. So it was a very eye opening experience for me to observe the LGBTQ+ community openly and unapologetically celebrating their identities while also hitting the streets to demand #justiceforjennifer. Clearly the need for trans rights could no longer be ignored as basic human rights.

  • The film negotiates the many challenges faced by the trans community in the Philippines, what was your thought process in navigating these in the film?

As trans activist Naomi Fontanos so eloquently says in the fim, “the death of Jennifer Laude is the result of continuing American imperialism in the Philippines.” To look at Jennifer Laude is to also look at the history of colonialism and the intentional eradication of women and female identifying individuals throughout the centuries from the Spaniards onward. In researching for the film, I learned that pre-colonial Philippines largely held women in positions of power and leadership. So of course these beloved healers and community leaders become the first targets of imperialists who demonize them as witches or evil spirits in order to disrupt the systems of governance, allowing the colonizers to take over like an infection. But for me, Jennifer also represented a spirit of the Philippines including pre-colonial Philippines –  a spirit that cannot ever die no matter what show of force of violence is inflicted because it is the essence of the people. Filipinos have experienced the on-going fight for sovereignty and independence for centuries. They are born out of struggle and resistance and trans women embody this fighting spirit greatly. So I wanted to highlight this overlooked history and lineage of trans and female identified individuals who have been instrumental figures in Philippines culture and history.

  • The film features many trans women, what were the challenges they faced in the making of this documentary?

When we first screened the film publicly, during the Q&A an openly trans individual commented on being appreciative of seeing a wide range of trans folx in different roles such as journalists, activists, community leaders AND sex workers. Meredith mentions in the film that a series of circumstances have afforded her to be able to move to the US, receive an education, have job opportunities available – many opportunities that were not available to Jennifer. And even though the film addresses imperialism and sovereignty, the reality is at the end of the day Jennifer’s friends still struggle to survive working as sex workers with little to no other opportunities available to them. This is why I chose to end the film with Meredith revisiting the friends, to highlight the challenges trans women face in the Philippines which are ongoing despite the reporting about Jennifer. When interviewing Jennifer’s friends I had to also think of their safety. Even meeting me for an interview they could be subject to being arrested or harassed. So I’m extremely thankful they allowed me to share their stories, but I cannot stress the importance of supporting legislation in the Philippines such as the SOGIE bill (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) that would protect the rights of all queer individuals including trans women. From my understanding, this bill has failed many times in passing congress, but shortly after Jennifer’s story became public the bill was reintroduced and passed in the House. This was largely due to the efforts of queer and trans activists. So we can continue to change the culture that oppresses trans women BUT ALSO support legislation and policies that will protect or give equal rights. VOTE! Elect leaders that will focus on and support legislation to support trans communities. We need to use all our resources including our voting power.

  • Naomi, please tell us about GANDA Filipinas, and what has been its major challenges?

Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas was founded in 2012 out of a need for an organization that would advocate for human rights and social justice for the trans community in the Philippines. We also wanted to bring a decolonial, intersectional feminist approach to LGBTQIA+ advocacy work challenging systems of oppression not only on the bases of gender, race/ethnicity, and class but as well as on imperialism and colonialism. As much as possible, we want our activism to reflect our values as an organization: dignity, community, wellbeing, joy and social change. One of the critical areas we face is sustaining movement building especially at a time of contracting democractic spaces offline and online. Recently, human rights work has been demonized thanks in large part to the rise of populism in the Philippines and this has certainly had a ‘chilling effect’ on building a strong second line of activists who may be inhibited by the climate of fear that we all now face under an increasingly authoritarian environment. Another challenge is, of course, the patriarchy that is so pervasive among individuals and institutions and remains a barrier to trans liberation. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has also revealed & exacerbated the vulnerabilities of LGBTIQA+ communities. In the Philippines, for instance, we have noted cases of LGBTIQA+ people being subjected to state violence as part of COVID-19 surveillance. Many poor LGBTIQA+ Filipinos are also suffering more economically at this time.

  • What are the campaigns you are currently carrying forward and how can people support these?

We are currently supporting the campaign for the passage of a national anti-discrimination law that would penalize discriminatory practices on the bases of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics (SOGIE). We are also actively supporting the work of LakanBini Advocates Pilipinas,  a network of trans organizations advocating at the intersection of health and human rights and Philwomen on ASEAN, a network of organizations advocating on women’s rights in the Southeast Aisan region.

PJ Raval is an award winning filmmaker whose work explores the overlooked subcultures and identities within the already marginalized LGBTQ+ community. Named one of Out Magazine’s “Out 100”, PJ’s credits include TRINIDAD: TRANSGENDER FRONTIER (Showtime) and BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, which follows the lives of three gay senior men, described by indieWIRE as “a crucial new addition to the LGBT doc canon.” BEFORE YOU KNOW IT screened theatrically and broadcast premiered as the season finale of AMERICA REFRAMED on World Channel, and was awarded the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist Association Excellence in Documentary Award 2016. PJ recently completed CALL HER GANDA which follows the events surrounding Jennifer Laude, a trans woman who was discovered dead in a motel room in Olongapo City, Philippines with the prime suspect being a US Marine. CALL HER GANDA released theatrically Fall 2018, winning over a dozen Best Documentary and Audience Awards and recently broadcast premiered on POV on PBS to millions of viewers. Also an accomplished cinematographer, PJ shot the Academy Award nominated Best Documentary TROUBLE THE WATER and is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, 2016 Firelight Media Fellow, 2017 Robert Giard Fellow, and a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Naomi Fontanos is a Filipino trans rights advocate, and co-founder and Executive Director of the transgender rights group “GANDA” (Gender and Development Advocates) Filipinas in the Philippines. In 2008, Fontanos became the first transgender co-coordinator of Task Force Pride Philippines (TFP), a network of LGBTQ organizations formed in 1999 to organize the annual Metro Manila Pride march. To date, no other transperson has ever achieved that feat. In 2011, Fontanos was one of three trans-women petitioners in a communication sent to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) asking the HRC to compel the Philippine government to address the situation facing transgender Filipinos. In 2012, Fontanos co-founded the Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas to locate transactivism in the framework of human rights and development work that was rooted in the socio economic, political and cultural context of the Philippines and the ASEAN.