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Looking Beyond Labels With Isabel Sandoval: Part 1

January 11, 2021
4 min read time

It’s no coincidence that writer-director Isabel Sandoval’s latest film Lingua Franca finds the most power in things left unsaid. It’s a delicate drama that touches on being an undocumented immigrant and a trans woman under the reign of Trump, and begs the question: Is there room for love when you are dwelling in the spaces of the in-between?

The film’s main character, Olivia (played by Sandoval) is blossoming and coming into her own, but her circumstances are simultaneously forcing her to live a life of the in-between. She has become the woman she wants to be, but is still afraid to tell partners of her past. Olivia is also living an undocumented life (as she struggles to get a green card) not yet as an American, even though New York City has long been her home, under the roof of another as a caregiver in Brighton Beach. While it's a community of immigrants, they're not from her own faraway home, but instead from Russia. The third layer of opposing force comes in the form of troubled Alex, the grandson of her client Olga (played by the late Lynn Cohen) who feels like forbidden love. When Alex comes to live under the same roof, temptation haunts the two and gloriously drives much of the film's second act.

In the in-between times, not as much comes to fruition as one might like. Lingua Franca is the perfect title for a time of transition, as translated literally, it means “bridge language,” or the speech used to communicate when two people do not speak the same language. While Olivia’s English is perfect, that doesn’t mean everyone in her life is on the same page. There’s the feisty Olga, who is often in her own world. The man whom Olivia pays to marry her for a green card, who abruptly tells her he loves another. And then there’s Alex — the one she’d like to tell all her secrets to, yet lives in uncertain fear if she’ll ever be able to tell him any.

For Sandoval, it’s clear this story was very personal. “It really isn’t autobiographical, but I resemble the main character Olivia in that we are both Filipina trans women living in Brooklyn. A lot of the details of the narrative are composite experiences of friends of mine. Both trans women and friends who had to look after an elderly relative who was dealing with dementia. I do have a few friends as well who found themselves in arranged green card marriages. One or two of them happened to be trans. But it is also very personal in that I was really tapping into my own psychological and emotional experience being a trans woman who has found herself becoming romantically involved with a cisgender man who is not initially aware that I am trans. That’s the kind of psychological dynamic that feeds into Olivia and Alex in the film.”

Sandoval’s Olivia feels particularly vulnerable. So much so that Alex, who works in a butchering facility and loves to box (exuding outward masculinity all over), still feels compelled to at least physically protect her. Sandoval stated she did feel vulnerable making the movie, particularly during a time in American history that veered towards authoritarianism. Olivia’s journey as an immigrant was not initially part of the story, but when Trump got elected, Sandoval was inspired to add a chapter on immigration. Sandoval has even stated that Trump’s election made her want to shelve the project until a different time, but her producers encouraged her to push through. Ultimately, she felt the project was therapeutic: “I was able to channel my own mental and emotional state at the time into the movie. I liked creating a romance with a hint of unease.”

And a romance with a hint of unease is infinitely watchable. Sandoval did not shy away from intimate scenes between Olivia and Alex, which often created some of the most captivating moments of the film. “Shooting the sex scene with Olivia and Alex, I realized there are not a lot of scenes like that in American cinema. Not just the trans female gaze, but the female gaze. A lot of sex scenes favor a leering male gaze where there is a fixation and fascination on gyrating female and male body parts. I felt I wanted the sex scene to be about the female being the active agent of desire.”

Simply by giving Olivia the space to experience desire and be in control, the sex in Lingua Franca feels revolutionary. Not to mention Sandoval is a master at building the tension to Olivia’s release. “The first scene is a love letter read by Alex that conjures a fantastic interlude in Olivia. And the second scene, a more straightforward sex scene, focuses on Olivia’s space and also focuses on Olivia as she starts wrestling with the growing anxiety of realizing she’s becoming intimate with someone who might not be aware that she’s trans. And that by being a trans woman of color, she’s potentially exposing herself to the threat and the risk of a very real physical danger...and finally allowing herself to surrender to sexual pleasure. And throughout the whole scene where it is lingering on her face, there is an assertion of self-hood and agency. I used what is otherwise a standard sex scene to convey Olivia’s strong sense of identity.”

The industry has noticed Sandoval’s gaze is unique and needed. One of Lingua Franca’s early screenings was at the Venice Film Festival where Sandoval made history as the first trans director at the festival. “I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember, so going to Venice was a dream. It took me until college to have access to art house films," she says. "I was walking the red carpet with Joaquin Phoenix and then after that I traveled for four months with the film. It was a whirlwind. I was in Paris for the film’s opening when the pandemic hit, so the opening didn’t happen and there were military tanks locking down the city, but I feel lucky to have this surreal time.”

As Sandoval is establishing a firm identity as a filmmaker to watch here in the states, her characters in Lingua Franca struggle with the idea of identity throughout the movie. Olivia lives an identity of limbo as ICE seems forever closer on her trail. Olga, the woman she cares for, lives in psychological limbo as she struggles to maintain peace of mind in the face of dementia. Alex lives a romantic limbo as he faces life addled with complicated patriarchal privilege, while balancing his newfound feelings for Olivia. But in the moments of silence, all of these characters get a chance to be most authentically themselves, and that’s why Sandoval’s accolades feel so well deserved. It is a joy to spend time with a trio of characters who have too often been overlooked, and a privilege to get to know them intimately. Sandoval makes you care for each of them just as much as she does, to the point that the film’s ending leaves one with a pang, wishing it could continue.

In Part 2 of our talk with Sandoval, we'll discuss balancing filmmaking with a message, toxic masculinity and how to tackle it on screen, and how to manage filmmaking on a modest budget to maintain control of your message. Stay tuned.

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