Isabel Sandoval on Representing Transgender and Immigrant Lives Through the Lens of Trump’s America in ‘Lingua Franca’

Headshot of director Isabel Sandoval. She is a Filipina trans woman, 38 years old with long dark hair and dark eyes. She gazes directly at the camera, her mouth slightly open. She is photographed on a busy New York street, wearing a V-neck red shirt and wool grey blazer.
Divergent PR

Writer, director and lead actress of Lingua Franca, Isabel Sandoval, is well aware of how historic her film’s release on Netflix will be. In her third directorial feature, but her first upon transitioning, Lingua Franca is a rare, almost unheard of, but desperately-needed depiction of the life of a transgender, immigrant woman in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 election win. Distributed by Ava Duvernay’s collective Array, the film is well aware of its quiet, but resounding act of resistance. Following undocumented trans immigrant Olivia (Sandoval) as her planned marriage to obtain a green card falls through, Lingua Franca displays an immense vulnerability and much needed dimension to trans lives through the lens of passionate romance and unique linguistic communication.

With the film now available on Netflix, Screen Queens’ Bethany Gemmell was able to chat with Sandoval about her unique artistic vision.

A still from 'Lingua Franca'. Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) is pictured in close-up looking to her right. There are windows behind her but the scene looks set in the evening. She is a Filipino woman with dark skin and a mole on her cheek. Her dark hair is shoulder length with bangs.

Bethany Gemmell: Hi Isabel! Thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak to us. First off, I wanted to congratulate you on the success of Lingua Franca. It’s winning all these well-deserved awards, and I read that you became the first openly transgender filmmaker to compete at Venice Film Festival – that’s amazing!

Isabel Sandoval: Thank you, thank you so much. It’s been kind of surreal, but an amazing journey that this film has been on. I’m excited that it’s finally going to be released on Netflix.

Lingua Franca is inherently a highly political film. It showcases the experiences of cultural transphobia and the impact of ICE on communities. We even hear a few snippets of a Trump speech. Is there anything, perhaps in America’s current political climate, or your own creative life, that made you think that this moment in time, is the time to tell this story?

Certainly. Lingua Franca is my third feature film but it certainly feels like my first – it’s my first after my gender transition, and it’s my first to be set and produced in the US. When I started writing the film, I was going through my gender transition, and also halfway through writing it, that was when Trump became elected to the White House. While the film is not autobiographical, the first few months after his election, I was feeling a lot of anxiety and vulnerability as a minority living in the US, and that was the sentiment and emotional state I wanted to channel and capture in Lingua Franca.

I had actually thought of shelving the project for a while after the election, but I was working with three producers that are also Filipino immigrants, and are extraordinarily accomplished artists in their own right. They told me that if there’s a time to make this film, it’s now, more than ever.

Did Trump’s election and your transition make you approach your third feature film from a different perspective? Did it change your experience as a filmmaker and an actress?

Yeah, absolutely. The premise and the themes of Lingua Franca are ones that I’ve already tackled before in my previous films. I’ve always been drawn to stories about women who are either dispossessed or disadvantaged, who find themselves confronting very personal and private choices in a broader socio-political setting. It is more obvious in Lingua Franca – it’s about an undocumented trans woman, trying to survive in Trump’s America. I feel that it’s natural and organic that I was drawn to those stories, but I also wanted to infuse the film and take it to a surprising direction, because although on paper it sounds like a social issue drama, I didn’t want to make it preachy. I tried to infuse it with subtlety with the racism, and sensuality, especially with a trans woman lead. That almost never gets explored on screen at all. Ever.

A still from 'Lingua Franca'. Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) sits in a church pew with a friend behind her, she is a another Filipino woman. Olivia looks incredibly fed up, looking downwards with her arms folded, her dark hair looks unwashed and messy, she wears a denim jacket. Her friend in the pew behind has her hair pulled back into a ponytail with a large orange yellow scarf around her neck, she is trying to comfort her.

You’ve previously directed a film, Apparition (2012), about nuns during a time of martial law in the Philippines. You also have a scene in Lingua Franca where our main Filipina characters, Olivia and Trixie, reminisce about their childhood fantasies of becoming nuns. What do nuns represent to you, as a filmmaker?

Having grown up in the Philippines, and stayed there until I finished my undergraduate degree, so I’ve actually been educated in [Catholic schools] with priests and nuns. Although I do not consider myself religious, I have an overt relationship with Catholicism – it is undeniably part of who I am. Even though I have a complicated relationship with it, the influence definitely becomes apparent in my work.

As you mentioned, in the scene with Trixie and Olivia, I wanted to set that scene between two trans women in a church. Almost always I see depictions of trans women in films, just focusing on sexuality, just them being objects. So when I showed them being spiritual, in a sense, I like to think I’m giving them certain layers. So by showing them being spiritual, I’m giving them a certain dimension compared to how we usually see trans women portrayed.

You wrote, produced, and directed this film – and you’re also the lead actress. That’s a huge professional demand for yourself. How did you cope with rotating these roles on set, especially moving from in front of the camera, to directing behind the camera?

I actually thought it was challenging in a fun way. These five roles that I took on are what I consider kind of the key creative roles that will ensure than my vision for the film is translated from the page to the screen. For instance, acting in the film, especially the main protagonist, if you think about it, the writer/director – when they write the main protagonist in the script, these main protagonists may be an alter-ego [laughs], or a stand-in for the writer/director.

So, it made sense to me to inhabit Olivia, because she’s also someone that I’ve come to live with for almost two years before rolling the camera. Acting in the film, it wasn’t nearly as intimidating or as daunting as I would think. I actually thought, that me acting would be one less person for me to direct, because I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish in each scene, and I just had to focus on directing the other actors. It gets challenging – film-making is not a voluntary act of creation, you are working with a group of people, and I consider it like being a conductor of an orchestra. You want to make sure people are on the same page as you, and that they are giving you a kind of feeling, the technical mastery that you would want in your film. That was the more tricky part of shooting.

Also, as director, I play a very large part in setting the tone on set, and a level of morale, so even if it gets tense or stressful, I never lose my temper or yell at people. I just take all the stress in, and at the end of the day, it really drains me emotionally and it’s quite exhausting, but I still enjoy the whole process because I love film-making. I’ve always been passionate about cinema, and I enjoy every minute of doing what I want to do, which is not always an opportunity that everyone has.

A still from 'Lingua Franca'. Couple Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Alex (Eamon Farren) are shot from a distance, and zoomed in. They are near the sea and there are other people walking around the frame. It looks cold. Olivia is staring into the distance, wearing a floral dress and denim jacket, Alex has his arms around her, resting his chin on her head. They both look content.

What I really enjoyed about Lingua Franca, which I think comes from having a trans director, is that we’re used to seeing trans people in media during transition, and this is often rooted in trauma. This is not the case in Lingua Franca, and instead we have this rather beautiful love story between Olivia and Alex.

Was this intentional on your part? Did you purposefully try and subvert how trans people are usually depicted in film?

Absolutely. I’m extremely aware that Lingua Franca is a rare bird in that it is a film that centres on a trans woman, and it is written and directed by a trans woman. It starts, in a lot of these trans films directed by cisgender male directors, as you said, there’s a lot of fixation on the gender transition process. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with covering that subject, but there are other interesting and equally valid aspects to the trans experience to focus on. I also didn’t want myself to pander and educate cisgender people on what life is like for a trans person, I didn’t want “Transgender for Dummies” or “Trans 101”.

Especially in the first part of the film, I just immersed ourselves in the world of these characters, especially Olivia and going through her daily ritual, and her experience with Olga, who she’s looking after, her friendship with someone like Trixie, and this burgeoning emotional attachment to Alex. I also didn’t want to portray love as just like, lollipops and roses, I also really wanted to show this woman within this very particular socio-political context for trans people during the current Trump administration. That experience is very human and very natural has become fraught with tension and anxiety because of the time and place that we live in, especially for her. 

The film definitely felt revolutionary to me in how we usually see the trans experience. Were there any sources of inspiration for this?

Yeah, certainly. I never went to film school, so my film school was really exposing myself to and broadening my cinema knowledge, watching as many films as possible of master filmmakers who have come to influence my evolution as a filmmaker in terms of my style and my aesthetic. One of them is Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a filmmaker from the 1970s and early 80s, especially Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, an interracial love story between a German woman and Algerian immigrant. Wong Kar Wai is also a major influence, In The Mood For Love especially. As a matter of fact, when I showed a rough cut of Lingua Franca to my friends, they told me it reminded them of that in terms of the rhythm.

Yeah, I definitely saw that with the scenes in the apartment.

The last major influence was James Gray. I saw Two Lovers when it first came out, and that was also set on Brighton Beach and was a romantic drama with Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. It really left a profound impression on me, and in a way, Lingua Franca is me revisiting the moods and textures of that film. 

As the title suggests, the use of language in Lingua Franca is very interesting. The love interests, Olivia and Alex, both speak in their own native languages, but speak to each other in English. Even in the moments of silence throughout the film, there’s a lot of communication not in the English language. What was the thought process behind this, as a director?

It’s sort of my own personality making itself apparent in my film-making and my approach to character and drama. I use Lingua Franca as a term ironically in this film, as a term of explaining that what is actually important between the characters is what is left unsaid and unarticulated. The silences and the pauses are kind of a breathing room to allow the audience to really ponder and respect, and try to really understand these characters beyond what they’re willing to reveal through their words. In the same way, I’m trying to approach very heavy and very urgently political themes — immigration and the transgender experience — with a delicate, subtle hand. I think these issues are very complex and very nuanced.

For a film that’s coming out now, Lingua Franca seems unfashionable in its sensibilities, because it’s patient and quiet when people expect it to be loud and didactic. I want the film to be an invitation to the audience to pay attention and to listen, and think deeply about a woman like Olivia and her motivations, and the themes the film touches upon.

Lingua Franca is available to stream on Netflix now

by Bethany Gemmell

Bethany graduated from The University of Edinburgh.  She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time.

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