Isabel Sandoval’s ‘Lingua Franca’
Lingua Franca refers to a common language between two people whose first languages are different. Communication and understanding are key themes in this subtle and understated film, the third feature from award winning writer/director Isabel Sandoval, who also stars as
the protagonist Olivia, an undocumented Filipina trans woman living in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach and working as a domestic caregiver for an elderly Russian-Jewish woman, Olga. Olivia saves her salary diligently, supporting her family back home in Cebu—and keeping cash in a drawer to pay an American acquaintance to marry her so she can obtain a greencard. Her carefully laid plans are thrown into chaos and uncertainty with the increase of xenophobia in the West and the arrival of Olga’s dysfunctional grandson Alex, who is trying to get back
on his feet after a stint in rehab. Alex is immediately fascinated by the poised woman who manages his grandmother’s life. Initially awkward with each other, Alex and Olivia’s relationship evolves into a friendship and eventually a passionate sexual connection. As they spend more time together, what seems like a mutual sexual outlet for two lonely people develops into something potentially real. But that promise is disrupted by the looming transphobia of Alex’s frat-like buddies and Olivia’s fears around her undocumented status. Lingua Franca is both a unique take on a love-story, and the American Dream narrative, demonstrating the similarities between a trans and immigrant experiences by telling an intersectional story of a woman whose body carries the weight both of those experiences. It’s the story of the precarity of a life lived in a country where the majority of citizens are encouraged to view the marginalized as their enemy.
Q&A with Isabel Sandoval.
Lingua Franca | Isabel Sandoval | USA, Philippines | 2019 | 95 min | Tagalog and English
A groundbreaking trans filmmaker and actor whose work has screened around the world, Isabel is working on her third feature following the success of 2019 film Lingua Franca.
Excerpts from Passersbuy, March 2020:
on growing up in the philippines and falling in love with new york
I was born and raised in Cebu, the second-largest city in the Philippines. I was an only child and I attended a Filipino-Chinese Catholic school. I was pretty geeky and I spent a lot of time at the library.
I moved to New York a year after graduating college and last October was the first time I went back to the Philippines since completing my transition. It was a bizarre experience to be in my home country and feeling anxious and self-conscious about being trans, which is something I’ve never experienced or had to think about living in New York City. It didn’t take me too long to call it home, being that it’s the mecca for cinephiles. I’m such a film person that stage productions tend to just leave me indifferent but I was blown away by the spectacular production design of La Boheme the first year I moved here. It was like they built an entire town on stage. How can one not fall for a city that has these things? Also, new transplants should see a repertory opera at the Met.
on embracing her identity as a transwoman
I didn’t realize I was trans until some time after moving to New York. Growing up in the Philippines, the transwomen around me were hyper-feminine. Nothing wrong with it; there are countless ways of being a woman but I’m just not the Barbie type. While here in the US, I came across YouTube channels of transwomen from different backgrounds, writers, the non-profit world, some were married with kids, and they were asking the same questions I was asking myself and that started a three-year period of soul-searching. A year into that, I made my first feature Señorita where I played a transwoman as a way of testing the waters. By the time I wrapped my second feature, I was certain and discreetly started my transition shortly after.
I’ve been infatuated with movies since I was four. One of my earliest memories was being at this grand pre-war movie palace in my hometown with my mom. We were high up in the balcony watching a comedy starring the Filipino Charlie Chaplin. The film itself was hardly a classic but it was the experience of being in a dark room with these glorious images projected on a massive screen that lingered with me. I soaked in all the movies, even the melodramas adapted from comic serials that were all the rage then. My taste evolved and matured once I had access to foreign films. Another magical experience I had, after attending my first Cannes Film Festival, was seeing Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola at an arthouse cinema near the Sorbonne. There’s an intoxicating romance to Parisian arthouse theaters, and it’s surreal how Lingua Franca (released as Brooklyn Secret in France) will be playing there this month.
on how she broke into film
I’ve written and directed two features prior to Lingua Franca and, while I’ve learned a lot making it – it’s my first to be produced and shot in the US and also my first in English, I think talking about my actual first feature is more instructive. I didn’t go to film school. I’ve been based in New York for 3 years when I decided to get into film. My only foray into the film industry until then were internships in international distribution for studios like Focus Features.
I had an idea for a feature and first shot it as a narrative short here in New York as proof of concept for prospective financiers; it didn’t hurt that it played at some reputable fests as well). Then I flew home to the Philippines to make the feature on a shoestring budget with my own money and a few angel investors. I had carte blanche to make the film I wanted and took full advantage of it. That film is Señorita which, to my (pleasant) surprise, had its world premiere at Locarno, an A-list film festival alongside Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. That year, pre-breakout Sebastian Lelio and Nadav Lapid were in their main competition; Señorita competed against Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel. With my next feature Apparition, I was able to easily cast a few high-profile Filipino talents. That film is now considered a contemporary Philippine classic. As an only child, I’ve always been quite independent so I didn’t have any mentors along the way. I was open to making my own mistakes and learning from them; I’ve only grown more confident with every feature because of it. I did study the body of work and careers of auteurs I admired–that was my mentorship.
I get creative inspiration for my films from other artworks. While writing my new feature Tropical Gothic, I got ideas for scenes from a Peter Brueghel painting, the theme from the Gemini film soundtrack and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I know that every idea has its own gestation timeline so I don’t mind taking my sweet time developing a concept or idea in my mind. Depending on external deadlines (set by producers or grants), hatching a storyline can take between a few weeks to up to two years. When I feel that the story is ready to be written down, that’s when I sit down and do it. The process becomes more straightforward from there: development (including packaging and casting), financing, principal photography, and post-production. I have longtime producers that will help me mount the film (and I’m ecstatic that I’ll have European co-producers on Tropical Gothic for the first time). That said, I conceive of my films not as written words on a page but as shots strung together into scenes forming a narrative. I enjoy the editing phase the most because it’s where the film comes together both narratively and thematically, and writing a screenplay the least in that my films are about imagery and sound design and not primarily the dialogue. I think of myself as an auteur (director-editor) who writes and not as a writer-director.
I listened to a podcast where Liz Gilbert (who wrote Eat, Pray, Love) talks about ideas that float around in the ether until they decide which person to find a home with. That was revelatory to me. I used to think that creativity was purely deliberate–a “rolling up of the sleeves”, so to speak–but it’s just as much about openness and receptivity. We have a term for this feeling of kinship with an idea: artistic intuition. Listen to your gut feeling; that’s exactly what I did while deciding on what project to do next. Artists fixate or obsess over a single theme or motif over the course of their career. Three features in, I certainly notice that in my work and the oeuvre of directors I admire, like Christian Petzold and Lee Chang-Dong. Our methods and stylistic techniques may get more sophisticated, and our touch more subtle, but we’re still shuffling the cards of our obsessions.
Putting on my producer’s hat in making Lingua Franca, I try to strike a delicate balance with the production budgets for my film: high enough for the people involved, especially below-the-line production crew, to be fairly compensated for the work and low enough to allow me enough creative autonomy to realize my vision for the film. I think it’s a sustainable business model. The initial production budget for Lingua Franca was nearly triple what it ultimately ended up at; I pushed to bring it down because the initial number just seemed undisciplined to me. I want the film to look more than it cost to make, and I’d like to think I succeeded.
on her advice for young filmmakers
Be clear about what you want to accomplish as a filmmaker, whether it’s commercial success or critical acclaim. They’re not mutually exclusive but sometimes it means pursuing divergent career paths. My goal for now has been to be an arthouse filmmaker of some international reputation, where my work premieres and competes at major festivals (like they have in Venice and Locarno) and gets picked up for international distribution. In making your first feature, remember that what festivals are looking for is talent and aesthetic–Is yours original? Bold? Subversive? Do you take risks? Fests aren’t necessarily looking for technical polish or a high production budget; they know that’ll come to emerging filmmakers over time. We’re told to follow a certain template or formula to get programmed into certain top-tier festivals in the US but, if a certain aesthetic is genuinely not your sensibility or style, you can’t sustain it and you’ll only be steering yourself away from your authentic voice. Your first feature doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to have something radically your own. That’s how Lina Wertmüller became Lina Wertmüller and how Chantal Akerman became Chantal Akerman. Throw the rules out the window and take as many risks while you can. I didn’t go to film school; every day on set is my film school.
on acting, writing and directing and balancing it all on set
It helped that I don’t think of them as different roles but I just have one job: tell a story. And telling a story has multiple facets. A script is one, direction and performance yet another.