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In Opposition to “A Very Particular Mode of Transness”: Isabel Sandoval On Lingua Franca

Isabel Sandoval in Lingua Franca (photo courtesy of ARRAY Releasing)

The struggles of outer borough working class folks is nothing new to NYC-set dramas. But, in the outsider eyes and busy hands of director/writer/producer/editor/actress Isabel Sandoval, one of the newest auteurs of Filipino cinema—who makes her English-language debut in her adopted city with her third narrative feature Lingua Franca—classic tropes are updated to reflect our current intersectional reality.

The Venice International Film Festival 2019-premiering movie follows live-in caregiver Olivia (Sandoval), who, in the course of looking after an elderly Russian resident of Brighton Beach (Lynn Cohen), becomes romantically entwined with the woman’s ne’er-do-well grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), who labors under his uncle in a meatpacking plant while struggling to get his life back on track. The fact that Olivia is trans and undocumented while blending into her Brooklyn surroundings as cisgender female and assimilated makes the story all the more complicated—not to mention heartbreaking against a political backdrop in which pushing the marginalized back into the shadows and closet has become US government policy.

The day after the film’s August 26th Netflix release, Filmmaker caught up with Sandoval to learn about her project.

Filmmaker: How did this story originate? What research did you do to create such a diverse set of characters and circumstances?

Sandoval: Shortly after my second feature, Apparition, came out, I started my gender transition. I realize it’s such a private and personal experience, but as I was experiencing all these changes—not just in my physical appearance but emotionally and psychologically—it felt cataclysmic. The first time I realized I was attracting male attention as a woman gave me both a headlong rush and a sense of danger (for being trans). I felt powerful and vulnerable at the same time. It’s those conflicting feelings that I wanted to capture and distill. I started writing Olivia as a character.

In the months following Trump’s election, I was hounded by anxiety and paranoia. That’s when the premise of Lingua Franca really came together. It’s not an autobiographical film, but details in the film and Olivia’s experiences are a composite of real-life experiences inspired by friends of mine, whether they be caregivers or trans individuals, or people that they knew personally. I wanted the film to ring true.

Filmmaker: I read that Lingua Franca was heavily influenced by both Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and James Gray’s Brooklyn-set dramas. You also nod to the work of Chantal Akerman and Wong Kar-Wai. How did all these aesthetic touchstones come together in the final cut? Are they tied to your previous films as well?

Sandoval: It’s fascinating to me how these cinematic influences resurface in my own work years after I first saw them. For the most part, those nods weren’t by design. I had my own idiosyncratic vision for the film. It was only after finishing it, and experiencing the film as an objective viewer, that I recognized them.

I showed an advance cut to cinephile friends; more than a few mentioned In the Mood for Love. On the other hand, the opening and closing montages in my film were deliberate nods to News from Home, Akerman’s epistolary film about a European emigré in America. The juxtaposition of images of America with a voice speaking a foreign tongue is just haunting.

I didn’t go to film school, so the canon became my de facto film school. I saw many of these during a formative period when I was still learning the language of cinema. Perhaps that’s how they’re lodged into my subconscious and bubble up at unexpected moments in my work. The difference now, having made three features, is that these homages in my work are not ends in themselves. They’re simply means—something I examine and reimagine—for me to articulate my own ideas and vision.

Filmmaker: I recently interviewed Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz about her Maria Ressa doc A Thousand Cuts. She surprised me by noting that Duterte, or any administration per se, doesn’t really present barriers to indie production so much as do the costly permits (as a result of the inordinate amount of filmmaking going on). Which made me wonder, what are the biggest differences—from raising financing through production—between filmmaking in the US and the Philippines? Are there hurdles distinct to each country?

Sandoval: The last time I made a film in the Philippines (Apparition) was back in 2012. There is definitely some financial support for independent films, which have become a cottage industry of sorts since 2005—financed either by government grants or film festivals and augmented with, to a smaller extent, private equity.

Until recently, though, I don’t remember there being clearly-defined health and safety protocols for production crew, and the hours can be brutal. Last year a respected veteran actor died after not receiving prompt medical attention after an accident on set, so that’s why they’re taking these matters more seriously.

Distribution for arthouse titles is negligible. Theatrically, there’s barely an arthouse or independent chain to speak of, and virtually none outside Manila, while the local titles that streamers like Netflix pick up tend to be mainstream hits. That said, what I’m most worried about is the specter of censorship and curtailment of artistic freedom looming with the passage of the anti-terror bill under Duterte and how it can potentially put the lives of activists and artists critical of the government in jeopardy, a theme that I explored in Apparition.

Filmmaker: Back in 2018 I interviewed PJ Raval about his doc Call Her Ganda, which follows the fallout from the heinous murder of a trans Filipina woman at the hands of a US Marine (including the anti-imperialist fervor that resulted in overwhelming public support for Jennifer Laude’s family), and before that S. Leo Chiang and Johnny Symons about their 2016 doc Out Run, which trails the leaders of the “world’s only LGBT political party” as they try to elect a trans woman to the Philippine Congress. Honestly, watching both films I was quite shocked that such a Catholic country might even be accepting of its trans citizens. So do you find this to be the case, and thus perhaps allows for a greater openness to trans stories like that of your debut feature Señorita? (Or is this just the optimistic, American liberal POV asserting itself?)

Sandoval: It’s not acceptance but mere tolerance. And the compelling films you cite about the dangers and struggles that transwomen confront are documentaries, not popular entertainment.

That said, a very particular mode of transness—an exaggerated, campy femininity that only serves to ridicule or sexualize the trans person—flourishes in media and pop culture in the Philippines primarily to prop up machismo and regressive notions of masculinity. My character Olivia is the antithesis of that mode, and Lingua Franca exists in stark opposition to that paradigm. She’s not perfect or a saint but she’s layered, unglamorous and complex. She has an identity separate from simply validating cis men’s masculinity, or making them feel more manly. She just is.

Filmmaker: The undocumented immigrant experience in the age of Trump is front and center in Lingua Franca. The fact that your character, like many undocumented Filipinas, is a caregiver—i.e., an “essential worker”—makes the film all the more relevant in our current coronavirus-focused world. So has the meaning of the film changed for you over the years, from pre-production through to this pandemic release?

Sandoval: More than anything else, I felt like I hit a turning point in my sensibility as a filmmaker making Lingua Franca. I went from understanding what a good film looks and sounds like to what a good film is. Starting out, I was drawn to political themes because I felt that they had the patina of dramatic and moral weight to them. It’s automatic gravitas. However, while making Lingua Franca I consciously tried to avoid relying on the currency and gravity of its themes—such as immigration and transgender issues—as crutches, much like disingenuous Oscar hopefuls make movies about the Holocaust. Instead, I used them to give depth and texture to the milieu and set the tone and atmosphere of the film. I wanted to make a film set in the present time, thrumming with its attendant crises and neuroses, that ultimately felt timeless.

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