I went a little movie-heavy this week. On Saturday, I watched both Ulam: Main Dish and Call Her Ganda (both available at the Indianapolis Public Library!). Both were documentaries but quite different in subject matter, tone, and style.
Ulam, directed by Alexandra Cuerdo, is a downright excellent documentary about the current state of Fil-Am cuisine. It’s a fascinating collection of spliced-together interviews with a diverse crew of Filipino-American restaurant owners and chefs representative of the burgeoning movement to create and celebrate Filipino (and Filipino-inspired) dishes. And there are plenty of beautiful meals to salivate over throughout! The movie functions as a little bit of a cultural manifesto and a call for Filipino-Americans to celebrate, embrace, and support Filipino cuisine, and for all other Americans to open their eyes and give the food the attention it deserves. The movie came out in 2018 and feels very contemporary, with many of the main figures of this new food scene providing extensive interview time. The interviews provided an intimate perspective for many of the subjects, and it was also clear that this was a true community of culinary creatives, even where divided geographically; they were obviously in communication with each other, explicitly and implicitly referencing this connection and using a shared vocabulary and ethos.
If there was anything I would have liked to see more of, it would have been greater geographic diversity. The focus is on the East and West coasts, particularly LA and NYC, and I get it: that’s where a lot of this is happening, and that’s where larger Filipino communities are. Still, I know (if mostly peripherally) that there are chefs doing things with Filipino food throughout the Midwest, working with pride either with “authentic” Filipino food or Filipino-inspired dishes, doing something more visible and upscale than cheap, hidden-away turo-turo joints. I have to assume that the same is the case in the South, as well. Of course, no documentary can cover everything, and showing Filipino restaurants serving real Filipino food by real Filipino-Americans succeeding in the major food-trend-setting cities is important, but as a Hoosier, I do get tired of the narrative that everything cool related to arts, culture, and dining happens away from fly-over country.
As an aside, I just so happened to watch this documentary shortly after reading the recent NYT article about the revival of interest in the work of Doreen Gamboa Fernandez. They go together nicely, but I’d recommend reading the article whether or not you watch Ulam. And as an aside to an aside, wow, Nicole Ponseca seems to be everywhere! The owner of Maharlika and Jeepney, she is a major figure in Ulam, she’s interviewed for the NYT article, and she’s the author of the not-quite-year-old, well-reviewed I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook. The cookbook’s great, by the way; it’s very inviting with tons of recipes, lots of beautiful photos, cultural tidbits, and a clear argument in favor of the popularizing of Filipino food and culture. It’s truly a great book for someone like my wife, who’s grown up feeling both pride and shame for her heritage, and for someone like me, who just loves good food. (And an aside to the aside to the aside: all the restaurants featured in Ulam look incredible, but at this point I don’t see how I could ever plan a trip to New York that didn’t include a meal in at least one of Ponseca’s restaurants.)
Call Her Ganda, directed by PJ Raval, is a heavy documentary about the tragic killing of a trans woman by an American marine in the Philippines, and the resultant publicity, trial, and international tension that resulted. The subject matter was important, but the execution was lacking. Frankly, this documentary tried to tackle too much. There are too many important subjects and themes that intersect here for something that runs less than two hours. A miniseries, or better yet a book, would have been more impactful. Some of the issues that are raised by this documentary and its central subject matter, in no particular order, include the following:
- The Visiting Forces Agreement has provisions that are contrary to the sovereign interests of the Philippines and that keep the Philippines subordinate to the United States;
- The treatment of LGBTQ people and issues in America and in the Philippines is hardly a finished story with a happy ending;
- The transgender community continues to remain a particularly vulnerable, separate, and discriminated-against group that has not necessarily risen in treatment along with the gay/lesbian/bisexual community;
- Even those who claim support for LGBTQ people/issues can still be transphobic;
- Violence against transgender people remains a largely unaddressed problem;
- There are rampant unresolved concerns with the exploitation of women and transgender individuals, especially revolving around the sex trade, and these concerns are not so easily addressed as siding with or against the legalization of sex work;
- Transgender individuals in impoverished regions of the world, where they lack support and may face increased discrimination, often feel compelled to turn to sex work to survive;
- Political movements can make unusual bedfellows for the convenience of shared use of an icon or moment (e.g., the intersection of LGBTQ activists and anti-American activists in relation to the death of Jennifer Laude);
- The Philippines has a complicated history in relation to the LGBTQ community, with a pre-colonial acceptance of non-conforming gender identities that has been suppressed by centuries under the domain of the Catholic church;
- The nationalist impulse that led to the election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency has at least some connection to many Filipinos feeling ignored by their leaders, who have kowtowed to American policies that seem exploitative and actively detrimental to the well-being of the average Filipino;
- Justice is limited to those of little means, and in the extreme poverty present, for instance, in areas of the Philippines, justice can be subverted in many ways with the addition of money; and
- Justice can often be limited not just by corruption or poor enforcement but by inadequately written laws.
There’s more, but that’s enough to make my point. The movie hops around, hinting at and sometimes exploring these different issues, but without a cohesive focus on one or two concerns, it feels too broad in scope. The movie resultantly feels sort of distant and removed. For such a shocking crime, the human element is faint. The mother of the victim is a compelling character, but she shares the screen with her attorneys and with a transgender Buzzfeed journalist covering the story. The journalist probably gets the most attention, but she seems so quiet and reserved, and too often the story seems caught up in her experience of a moment rather than the underlying story. (It’s actually baffling to me that the focus is on the journalist. This isn’t really a story about an investigation into a mystery; it’s pretty clear, at least as presented in the documentary, who killed Jennifer, why they killed Jennifer, and how they killed Jennifer. The real story is the impact to the family of the victim and how activists respond to and use this incident. One of the most articulate, energized, and engaging figures to appear was a Filipina transgender activist, but she only appears sporadically.) I hope that a more coherent take on this story and its many complicated issues is eventually made available–if you are aware of something like that, let me know.
Both documentaries were worth watching, and while I preferred Ulam, I recognize the importance of the subject matter of Call Her Ganda, especially when the transgender community is often disparaged or invisible to the larger population. It’s great that my library has materials like these in its collection, and I hope people check them out.