Although Lingua Franca is only Isabel Sandoval’s third film, she already has made her signature recognizable. Her work is astute, impeccably shot, and often invites the audience to fill in the gaps of what she refuses to digest for them. Her debut Señorita was about a transgender woman who realizes she might influence a political race through a connection she made as a sex worker. In Apparition, the resilience of nuns in a Filipino convent becomes an act of resistance in the midst of the brutal Marcos administration.
Combining the personal with the political, by reminding audience members that to be a person is to be political, in Lingua Franca Sandoval explores the dynamics of three characters in New York City. She plays Olivia, an undocumented trans woman who takes care of the elderly Olga (Lynn Cohen). Terrified of being deported, but faithful to her idea of love, Olivia sees an opportunity to make her dreams come true when she meets Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren) and they begin an unlikely romance.
Unafraid to play with conventions of pacing, plot, and character, Sandoval displays an expert command of film language, that led her to become the first trans woman director to be in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing bought the film, which has now premiered on Netflix, giving the auteur the kind of exposure most directors dream of, and worldwide audiences the kind of thought-provoking art that challenges them to see someone’s humanity before the census boxes that represent them. We talked to her about directing herself, distribution, and why she hopes audience members will think about the film for days after they’ve seen it.
The Film Stage: I was just so overwhelmed by your world-building because I was thinking about Señorita, for instance, in which you focused on one character basically. In Apparition you had a group of nuns in the same space, and in Lingua Franca, you expand this creation of worlds to show us multiple characters living in a bigger world. There’s the world of Olga, a senior citizen, Alex her grandson who is a meatpacker, and of course Olivia. But all these worlds are also invisible to people who live in NYC, they’re always happening here but nobody notices them. Can you talk about how you intertwined the three?
Isabel Sandoval: First of all, thank you so much for noticing that and appreciating that. I think it really has to do with thinking about the category I am in the US. I’m a gold star minority because not only am I a woman, I’m a trans woman of color, who’s an immigrant. So the fact that I don’t experience privileges in different ways when it comes to race or gender, makes me more conscious and aware of stories, dimensions that you feel invisible to. For example, the general audience pays attention to issues of gender and race in the US, but I feel like I am not necessarily making that effort deliberately or consciously but it informs my filmmaking. My approach to character is that I don’t write characters in a vacuum; they are situated in a very particular sociopolitical setting and they understand how the bigger world affects and influences very personal and private decisions of an individual.
You mentioned my previous films and I’ve always been drawn to stories about women who are disadvantaged or dispossessed, who are forced to confront their personal issues within a broad sort of political settings, and Lingua Franca is no exception.
The Film Stage: If I were to describe Lingua Franca, I would say it is a tragic romance. And we are going to see people describing it as an issues film because it’s about a trans woman, and it’s about immigration. When an artist who is not a white man does something, it instantly becomes an issue project––it becomes about their race, gender, immigration status etc. and not simply about characters having a life we don’t see often on screen. What’s your take on that?
Lingua Franca is interesting because on paper, it does sound like a social issue drama. It touches on very pertinent issues that immigrants and trans people experience. I do that to subvert expectations, especially when you get to have a climactic scene where she makes a decision and by turning down an offer, it seems counter-intuitive and impractical to how we think she might decide. And it’s because that is the moment where that’s kind of a litmus test, an invitation to audiences to see Olivia beyond the sociological markers of identity. She’s more than just a trans woman looking for love. She’s more than just an immigrant looking for papers. By compelling the audience to really put themselves in her shoes and try to understand her they have to put themselves in her emotional life to understand why she decided the way that she did.
That is what I’m trying to do as a filmmaker and that kind of transcending the expectations set up for dramas that touch on social issues. I know that sounds like Lingua Franca may be divisive and polarizing because it doesn’t provide easy, convenient answers to heavy themes and subjects. It doesn’t traffic in big, obvious, straightforward emotions. But it tries to approach these themes in different manners, and it tries to elicit emotions that are subtle, complex, and even ambivalent and contradictory.
Ultimately, I would want the audience to think more deeply and critically about the themes that are depicted in this film. It’s not the kind of movie that you can finish watching and you just decide right away what kind of movie it is. I would hope the audience actually sits with it, and let it marinate and it hopefully lingers in their minds for a few days.
The Film Stage: Why did you decide to play Olivia? She’s such a tragic romantic heroine that I wondered why you wanted to endure her journey and emotions?
I think for this one it made sense to me because I consider myself as an auteur, and when you think about it, writer-directors in their scripts, the main protagonists usually tend to be like an alter ego, or a double. For the writer-director the story is not autobiographical, it’s fictional. But there is some emotional and psychological kinship between me and Olivia. I mean, this is a character that I have lived with, for a good part of almost two years before we started making the film. And so by also taking on multiple roles in the film, I wrote and directed and edited a film, I acted in it, and also was one of the producers. I just wanted to have a hand in what I consider the key creative roles in the film to make sure that I’m able to translate my vision from the page to the screen as faithfully as I had conceived them without any compromise.
I loved the dream sequence where Olivia allows herself to dream of Alex, which is done with filters and overlaying and it’s clearly a fantasy, very romantic. I don’t think we see many things like that in movies nowadays. But then we have the contrast of when her fantasy actually becomes reality, and it’s completely different aesthetically. I guess usually in art, when we have a fantasy, and then it becomes true, the purpose is often to shatter the fantasy. And instead, you show us different layers of Olivia. I’d love to hear you talk about that contrast.
It’s very interesting. I wanted to include those two scenes and how they’re handled quite differently. The fantasy scene is I think pretty radical in American cinema, because not only do we rarely see scenes of women desiring and that they’re the agents of desire, yoeu know they’re always the object of that gaze, you know, especially male gaze. So that fantasy scene is pretty much the embodiment of the trans female gaze. The second scene, the love scene, feels more raw and visceral. It’s quite an ambivalent scene, but it’s also not a conventional love scene in that it’s not showing images of naked bodies jiving against each other. It mostly focuses on her face and her, allowing herself to experience sexual pleasure. But then there’s also the dawning, she’s realizing that she’s becoming intimate with a man who doesn’t necessarily know that she’s transgender. She’s not sure of how he might react when he eventually knows. But it’s important for me to show that as a character moment for Olivia again under stress, and it’s a love scene. I show Olivia thinking, it’s a scene of a woman, a trans woman thinking and I think there’s no more powerful of assertion of identity and personhood than seeing a woman like that, being sentient and thinking.
I want to talk a little bit about your work with your cinematographer, Isaac Banks. It was so wonderful to see that the scenes in which Olivia and Alex are becoming closer you shoot them from afar. So it’s like the closer they become, the further the camera moves from them. How did you conceive these shots with the DP?
This is a drama of interiority. Just like the title Lingua Franca, in the dictionary the definition is rich language. But it’s ironic because although the characters do communicate with each other, what is important is what’s left unsaid and articulated and that kind of also influences the visual aesthetic of the film. There’s a lot of space visually, and there are silences and pauses and we are kind of observing these two characters from a distance.
It’s also because I want to push against having the film tether over into melodrama. I consider myself a very quite reserved and austere filmmaker. So as they’re becoming more intimate, I just want the audience to kind of lean closer and pay more attention to the drama and the arc of the characters. Another approach of mine, when it comes to my films is I am fascinated by the dissonance between a tranquil or serene surface in terms of imagery and kind of the tension roiling underneath.
The film’s ending is so heartbreaking because it shows there’s a cycle that’s broken and also another cycle that’s just restarting again, but I really want to talk to you about getting to work with Lynn Cohen, who is extraordinary in the last scene. I fell in love with her as a teenager obviously.
Yes! In my career, I’ve met so many superstars, but no one made me feel more starstruck than Lynn Cohen. I regret I never said hello to her over the many times I saw her in events and at the theater. What was it like to work with her?
Lynn has been champion of the film since day one. She was actually the first cast member we approached and she said yes, right away. She said that her own parents were immigrants from Ukraine and when she read the script, she believed that it’s a story that needed to be told and that my voice needed to be heard as a filmmaker. She’s also truly a legend. She’s incredible. And she also really added a different level of gravitas, especially in those scenes that you mentioned.
Were you harder on yourself as a director than you were with the other actors? Were you more critical about your work?
To be honest, I felt like, me acting in the film was one less person to direct. Because I guess one thing I can say for myself is that I want to take the plunge and I try to embody the character as naturally as I can. The only thing that gets stressful for me is when I’m acting with someone in the scene that I feel like it’s not giving me the answer or the temperament that I need for this. So we’d have to watch the monitor and do the scene again. That gets stressful, but I think I just trusted in myself in the film, and I hope that I didn’t do all that terribly.
What does it mean for you that Ava DuVernay and Netflix backed up the film?
Ava kind of really rescued the film from potential obscurity here in North America. I’m so so thrilled and grateful to be working with her. She’s always championed and amplified underrepresented voices. What this guarantees is that the film is shown or can be accessed by a much broader public. So I’m really clearly thrilled about that and I hope to kind of leverage that exposure to continue making films and tell stories that I’m passionate about, and hopefully that Hollywood takes notice.
We have seen plenty of stories about immigrant families, but in this case, Olivia is by herself. I came to the United States by myself also as an adult like my entire family. And just like what Olivia’s mom does to her in the film, my dad wakes me up at four in the morning for some random thing. Is this universal thing parents do to their kids abroad? If so, what’s the most random thing a family member has called you for while you were sleeping?
It’s funny because you know what my mother has not seen the movie. The most autobiographical aspects of me are those phone scenes because she would call me in the morning, and they don’t even begin to think about the time difference. And it’s almost always about you know, something in the news she saw this afternoon. I’m nervous about what my mom will think when she sees those scenes in the movie. It’s very real, and I don’t like it for a second, but I like to pick up. I enjoy getting calls from my mom.
Lingua Franca is now on Netflix.