While more trans actors are starting to appear on our screens big and small, it’s still all too rare for a feature film to be directed by a trans person, even rarer for a feature film to be written and directed by a trans person, and almost non-existent for a feature film to be written by, directed by, and starring a trans person. This alone would make Isabel Sandoval’s new film, Lingua Franca, worth checking out. But here’s the thing: it’s also just a remarkable movie.
I was lucky enough to talk to Sandoval about the film, her influences, the trans female gaze, and more!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Drew: I want to start by asking about your first feature Señorita. I was having a hard time finding it, but I know that it’s also about a trans woman and you also starred in it. Did you make that before coming out?
Isabel: That is correct. To be honest, I kind of did Señorita to sort of test the waters and really figure out if I was, in fact, trans. When I was growing up in the Philippines the image that I was exposed to of trans women in film and TV was a kind of exaggerated caricature of women. They’re always portrayed as laughing stocks and are really just men cross-dressing. It’s a very flat and one-dimensional portrayal of what it means to be a trans woman. That’s why I didn’t actually realize I was trans until I came here. There’s nothing wrong with being hyper-feminine, but that wasn’t how I viewed myself. So it was only after I came here to the US and on YouTube I would see transgender people from different backgrounds document their transition. I realized that I was asking myself the same questions they were asking themselves. That’s when I seriously started questioning if I was trans.
I never really tried presenting as female before I transitioned so I thought by inhabiting a female character in my film I could see whether emotionally and psychologically it felt like me and it felt right. That’s what pushed me to write and do Señorita, to be honest. And I’ve never really told anyone that before! The character Sofia/Donna in Señorita is the antithesis of how trans women were portrayed up to that point in Filipine cinema. She is a complex, conflicted, three-dimensional character. I allow her to be tender and sensual and angry and all these things. She’s kind of a prototype to Olivia’s character in Lingua Franca. And then yeah after making that film is when I realized I was trans and after I finished shooting my second film Apparition I officially started transitioning.
Drew: That’s amazing. How was it different making this film now having lived experience as an out trans woman?
Isabel: Definitely there’s a lot more self-assurance. And more confidence specifically in inhabiting Olivia. I didn’t feel like I was playing dress up or playing a role. I was able to kind of become Olivia in a sense. You know auteurs — writer/directors — when they write their main protagonist they’re writing kind of like an alter ego or a double in a way. Lingua Franca isn’t autobiographical but I do see a part of myself in Olivia and that’s why I thought I would be the right person to play her.
Drew: When you’re writing, how much are you thinking about responding to the negative trans representation that already exists and how much are you just trying to tell an authentic story?
Isabel: I feel like when I’m making a film I try to just focus on what I want to say and what I want to represent. That makes me feel free. That’s part of the reason I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t want my sensibility to be influenced by or limited in some sense to the philosophy and aesthetic of the teachers I was studying under. So my guides instead are the filmmakers that I’m drawn to like Wong Kar Wai, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, James Gray, and Chantal Akerman — those four were major influences on Lingua Franca.
It’s rare for a character like Olivia to be presented on screen — besides the fact that she’s trans, she’s also an immigrant. So I wanted to flesh her out with as much specificity — psychologically and emotionally — and take it from there. I wanted to see a trans character on screen that I’ve never seen before. That was the goal and ambition that I set for myself with Lingua Franca. And also seeing scenes of this trans woman desiring — being the active agent in sexual desire — and allowing herself to experience sexual pleasure where she’s not necessarily the one who’s objectified or exoticized.
Drew: That’s actually what I was going to ask you about next because the sex scenes are just… wow — granted I’ve been in quarantine for five months — but the sex scenes are amazing! They’re so hot! And it’s rare to see a sex scene with a trans women that is so clearly from a trans female gaze. How did you think about those scenes and go about constructing them?
Isabel: I really wanted to include those scenes. I actually feel like I had those scenes in mind and kind of wrote a story around those scenes. That’s what I wanted to portray. You mentioned trans female gaze and that’s exactly what I wanted to show. I feel like especially in American cinema there’s a certain prudishness that’s really just sexism. We’re not allowing women on screen to desire and be the active agent of desire and especially in sex scenes they usually just cut it to show a succession of images of naked bodies gyrating against each other. And, in particular, there’s a certain fixation and obsession with trans bodies so the sex scene is the opposite of that. For the most part the camera really focuses on Olivia’s face as she is experiencing pleasure.
But since this is very much a film where the characters are influenced by the sociopolitical setting that they live in, she’s also feeling this creeping anxiety about the dangers she might be exposing herself to by being sexually intimate with a man who isn’t aware she’s trans. And that’s definitely something that I’ve experienced. But it’s important to show those two things together where it’s not just the focus on her trepidation and fear but it’s actually coupled with her enjoyment and sexual pleasure. I think these paradoxes and layers make a character like Olivia come to life and be more fleshed out and feel like a real person.
I also wanted to show in that particular scene — because it’s not something I see a lot in American cinema — is just a woman thinking. There’s a certain undeniable assertion of identity and personhood in seeing a woman think. I know that sounds very René Descartes — I think therefore I exist. But that’s what I wanted to show in a character like Olivia who has tended to be quite invisible in terms of representation in American cinema.
Drew: Absolutely. You mentioned your influences and I saw on Twitter that the four films you named from those filmmakers were News from Home, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, In the Mood for Love, and Two Lovers. I love all those movies, News from Home especially. I’d love to hear more about your connection to that film and to Chantal Akerman’s work in general.
Isabel: Yeah! My style tends to be on the austere side. It’s visually sparse. And there are certain scenes — the kitchen scenes with Olga especially — that remind me of Jeanne Dielman just in terms of observing women performing their rituals in domestic spaces. I think what inspired me with News from Home is the juxtaposition of these images of a foreign land with the words of someone’s native tongue. Just like in News from Home where there’s voiceover of Chantal reading her mom’s letters in French against images of New York City, I wanted to do that. I made it a point to open and close Lingua Franca with those montages with the voiceover in Cebuano which is my native dialect. It’s my way as an immigrant and a “foreign filmmaker” to stake my claim in America and tell the story of immigrants in America from my perspective in my voice.
Drew: The last thing I want to ask you about is how you got this film made and what its journey has been to release. Obviously the industry is generally pretty inhospitable to women and trans people and people of color—
Drew: So I would love to hear about how you got it made and also how you got connected with ARRAY because I love them a lot! (ARRAY is a distribution company and resource collective founded by Ava DuVernay.)
Isabel: I was lucky in the sense that I’d already made two features before this that played at some major international film festivals so I had some track record to speak of when I started making Lingua Franca. And, you know, I’d never even attempt to make this in the Hollywood system because that’s just not going to happen. But I showed the script to other Filipino and Filipino-American producers who I knew would be receptive to this kind of material and I was lucky that a Tony and Grammy award-winning Broadway producer who is a Filipino immigrant took Lingua Franca on. He also brought in other Filipino-American producers and we were able to raise the funds through a combination of private equity, a Kickstarter campaign, and grants from Tribeca Film Institute and New York Foundation for the Arts. It’s a good thing there are film institutions that actively seek out underrepresented filmmakers and voices. Given the subject matter and themes that Lingua Franca touches on — such as immigration and trans lives — I think that’s a big reason why we got these grants.
I resisted and I fought to make the film that I wanted to make and to be true to my artistic vision without compromise. And that meant turning down some prospective investors who wanted to see the story a certain way. Physical violence against trans women has become a trope in narrative films and that’s just not something that I want to do. When we got word that we were selected for Venice it was such a vindicating feeling, a validation of my artistry and my voice as a filmmaker. And it traveled quite well abroad. It actually opened in France in July in over a hundred theatres to great reviews.
Last October, ARRAY reached out to us asking to play the film at their studio in Historic Filipino Town in LA but at that point we hadn’t had a US premiere. We eventually premiered at AFI Fest in November but we kept in touch with ARRAY and in May they officially made an offer on the film. We were so thrilled. Of course, it’s an honor to be part of ARRAY’s roster of truly visionary films by auteurs who are creators of color and underrepresented voices. But it’s also such an amazing vote of confidence from someone like Ava who is a trailblazer and has carved out her own space in Hollywood. She’s helping to keep the door open for filmmakers like me.
Lingua Franca is now streaming on Netflix.