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Looking Beyond Labels With Isabel Sandoval: Part 2

January 15, 2021
4 min read time

In Part 1 of our interview with Isabel Sandoval we discussed her latest film Lingua Franca, the power of the trans female gaze and giving women agency on screen, as well as making films as an immigrant in the era of Trump. We continue our conversation with Sandoval here on confronting toxic masculinity through character, controlling your message, and what’s next for Sandoval.

A wonderful driving force of Lingua Franca is Olivia’s relationship with Alex (played by Eamon Farren). While there is much tenderness to be had there is also an unsettling aspect between the two of them as Olivia’s immigration status (and fear of revealing her past) make an easy relationship with Alex feel impossible. Sandoval calls the film itself “a romance tinged with unease.” When the layers of Alex are peeled back, his sensitive soul is revealed but overtly his masculinity feels on constant display-- playing violent video games, working out in the boxing ring, and working for uncle in a meat packing plant.

Of the relationship, Sandoval says: “I wanted to come up with a relationship between two immigrants, or descendants of immigrants living in America. In New York you can feel the flair of different immigrant communities in different neighborhoods and you can definitely feel that in Brighton Beach (the setting of the film). Alex has been socialized in a somewhat macho, sexist and homophobic and transphobic way, and those are the activities he engages in. I write characters that are very much influenced by their social milieu, and while Alex’s actions are influenced by his upbringing, he spends the rest of the film trying to outgrow that as he sorts out his true feelings for Olivia and how he can make amends for the emotional damage that he’s cause her by gaslighting her.”

In previous interviews, Sandoval continued that it was incredibly important to her not to have Alex’s patriarchal influences veer him into the territory of violence: “Physical violence has become a lazy trope in films about trans women, especially trans women of color becoming intimately involved with cisgender men. It’s no coincidence that these films, which also sensationalize or eroticize the trans experience, tend to be directed by cisgender men. Trans people deserve and have fulfilling romantic relationships.” Sandoval and Farren’s chemistry on screen proves to be electric-- both erotically and emotionally. It makes Alex’s psychological betrayal of Olivia that much more heartbreaking, exposing Olivia’s deepest vulnerabilities while simultaneously cracking the audience’s heart wide open. Sandoval states: “Ironically it proves that Olivia cares deeply about Alex for her to be that wounded by his betrayal (a betrayal you will have to watch the movie to see), but it also is her way of gaining back her agency and determining the course of her own life and future.”

The film is not only Alex and Olivia’s love story, but it’s also Sandoval’s love story with New York in its portrayal of immigrant neighborhoods that are not always highlighted on screen. Brighton Beach has romantic moments and the beach feels like freedom. Filipino neighborhoods feel particularly welcoming with friends and food on every street corner which are only dampened by the presence of ICE agents. Sandoval says she spent many years in a Filipino neighborhood in Queens: “Even after I moved out I still go back there. The one thing that I miss the most after moving to the US was Filipino food and I didn’t learn how to cook it. So whenever I miss home I go to a Filipino restaurant. It’s a way for me to reconnect. I flew back to the Philippines to shoot my first two films.”

Another very impressive fact about Sandoval is that she is primarily a self-taught filmmaker with a wide variety of influences. “I have spent my life trying to get my hands on as many films from world cinema auteurs that I can. I also learned by making my own films. My first feature Senorita was my crash course. I really learned the dramatic potential of cinematography through that one. The camera was just there documenting, but ever since I have corrected that and compensated for that in my other movies.”

“Overall I haven’t sought out LGBTQ films and particularly trans films because so far there aren’t many, but Almodovar is a huge influence and Bad Education heavily influences a TV series that I am now developing. Wong Kar Wai is another huge influence. I kind of came of age in the time Chungking Express and Happy Together and in the mood for love came out.” Sandoval cannot currently divulge any details of her new series but if her influences and previous work are any hints hopefully the world will be receiving more diverse love stories with a unique point of view.

Despite the paths of those who have come before her, Sandoval is still often charting new territory in her work. For that reason, she was a fan of working with a more modest budget for Lingua Franca. “Initially the budget was just under $500k and we had a producer who wanted to raise it to 1.5 million but ultimately I realized that bringing the budget back down to its original number because I wanted to strike a balance between paying everyone a decent wage… this wasn’t really a paycheck gig for my stars, but they attached because they liked the material… I wanted the budget to be low enough to not have investors breathing down my neck. We hit a turning point in financing when I brought on board other Filipino collaborators…. It’s about finding the people in your own community that will champion you, and that’s what happened for me. I never attempted to get this financed in Hollywood because this is not the kind of story that studios would finance. Find your tribe of people who help get you to the finish line.”

This strategy worked well for Sandoval as the film was in part distributed by Array, Ava DuVernay’s company. Sandoval told Vanity Fair that: “Ava said that she was drawn to my voice and my sensibility, which is different, especially for a film like Lingua Franca, given the subject matter it explores.” With DuVernay’s name attached, Lingua Franca also landed on Netflix where it is still available for viewing.

Sandoval acknowledges oftentimes by simply being a unique creator carving her path, her art becomes inherently political for better or worse. She does not view herself as an activist but does understand her unique platform and place in an evolving landscape: “especially with Lingua Franca… Toni Morrison once said, ‘all art is political.’ In that sense I consider my filmmaking my advocacy. My goal is to shed light on lives that are otherwise invisible in American cinema and I start that with the character of Olivia and I intend to continue that in future work.”

While Sandoval’s work in Lingua Franca is undeniably moving, it is also a bit unsettling as one wonders if the character of Olivia will ever be given the space to feel at home in America. When asked, Sandoval is hopeful not only for her character’s future, but for all of America. “The election of Biden and Harris will contribute to a feeling of room.” Sandoval has stated in past interviews: "The intersectionality of Olivia isn’t academic or theoretical. It’s lived in. As much as they engage in universally human experiences like falling in love, the characters in my films don’t exist in a vacuum. They don’t have the luxury to. They thrive in clearly defined sociopolitical milieus because those spaces are not theirs.” It’s clear Sandoval is crafting her own space now in the future of cinema. As much as Olivia is thriving in a place that isn’t hers, Sandoval is certainly carving in-roads to make sure people who have felt othered will instead feel like they belong.

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