Lingua Franca marks many firsts for filmmaker Isabel Sandoval. Originally from the Philippines, the drama marks Sandoval’s first feature shot in the United States and it made history at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival Venice Days program as the first film directed and starring an openly trans woman of color to screen in competition. Although these are remarkable firsts, Lingua Franca is noteworthy turning point for Sandoval as it not only establishes her voice as an auteur but shines the light on narratives from the Filipino community — which are seldom seen in film and TV.
Sandoval’s previous films Senorita (2011) and Apparition (2012) served as stepping stones for Lingua Franca and since premiering at Venice, the filmmaker has left quite an impression with her distinct voice, which further showcases the importance of the diversity of stories and perspectives within the Asian and Asian American community — specifically the Filipino community. She will push it even further with her upcoming Tropical Gothic, a 16th-century surrealist drama about the haunting of a Spanish conquistador in the Philippine islands.
In Lingua Franca, Sandoval plays Olivia (Sandoval), the live-in caregiver for Olga (the late, great Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian woman in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. Olivia’s main priority is to secure a green card to stay in America, but when she unexpectedly becomes romantically involved with Olga’s adult grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), issues around identity, civil rights and immigration threatens Olivia’s very existence. After blazing a trail and impressing festival audiences, Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY acquired the title in July and will release the film on Netflix and in select theaters on August 26.
Sandoval talked to Deadline about the journey of Lingua Franca, how it has impacted her life and how the drama amplifies Filipino, trans and other voices that have been regulated to the margins.
DEADLINE: What was the catalyst that made you want to tell Olivia’s story?
ISABEL SANDOVAL: This is my third film, but it certainly still feels like my first because it’s my first after my transition… and it was my first to be set in and produced in the US. I wanted to make a film that I feel that I would be able to tell from a first-person perspective and that I can convey with authenticity and in a compelling manner. I also, given its premise, wanted to infuse the story with my unique sensibility as an auteur. While it’s not autobiographical, the main character, Olivia and I are both Filipina trans women immigrants living in Brooklyn. The rest of the premise is pure fiction. I do wear multiple hats in the film — I write, direct, edit, produce, and I also act in it. I wanted to really expand my voice as an auteur and as a storyteller in this film.
DEADLINE: Lingua Franca unpacks a lot of relevant issues within 90 minutes. The film addresses cultural identity, sexual identity, immigration and you fold in a romance while doing so. How did you manage to navigate all of this and give proper attention to all of these issues?
SANDOVAL: I think it’s because my approach to storytelling is that my characters do not live in a vacuum. They live in a very particular socio-political setting and milieu in terms of a time and a place. So the time is present-day Trump’s America and setting is the United States where there’s a lot of political tension and anxiety for minorities like undocumented immigrants and queer people — especially transgender individuals. By having that setting come to life, I feel like that situates my characters in a very concrete reality.
For example, although part of the story is the growing emotional attachment between Alex and Olivia, that development is informed by everything that it’s going on around them. As a Filipino filmmaker, I think my approach is also grounded in social realism. My previous feature Aparisyon was set in the early ’70s in the Philippines, on the eve of the declaration of martial law by then-President Ferdinand Marcos. That’s the kind of dramatic terrain that my films tend to cover in that they’re about women who are either dispossessed or marginalized, who are forced to confront very private and personal issues within that broader socio-political. It’s political, it’s personal and my stories are just kind of a confluence of that in that what’s going on in the bigger world affects our private lives, whether we like it or not.
DEADLINE: What did playing Olivia teach you about yourself?
SANDOVAL: In a way, the main character of films that filmmakers write and direct are kind of their alter egos. It took me a while to figure out that I was transgender. Growing up in the Philippines, I didn’t realize I was trans because the images that were being fed of trans women are almost always hyper-feminine and women who want to become a Kardashian — and there’s nothing wrong about that. There’s are different ways of expressing your femininity but I just did not identify with it. I was quieter and reserved.
It was only after I moved to the U.S., I started seeing different trans people document their transition process — and these are people who work in nonprofit organizations, writers, people with families, different people from different backgrounds… seeing them and hearing them ask themselves the questions that I’d been asking myself, that’s when I realized that I was trans. Ultimately I transitioned, not to become a woman, but to become more fully myself, which had happened to be a woman. I wanted to portray a character like Olivia in that sense.
I didn’t want to glamorize a character like Olivia, but really depict her as a caregiver immigrant going through daily rituals. I wanted to flesh her out in a way that she’s not necessarily saintly or perfect, but she’s flawed and complex. She can be sensual, tender, angry, anxious — and just portraying her in all these modes fleshes her out as a character.
DEADLINE: You filmed this in 2018 and a lot has changed since then — and even since it premiered at Venice. How have your feelings about the film changed with the times as it has gone on its journey?
SANDOVAL: It’s really evolved quite a bit. I think we write movies in three different stages. The first one is of course, for shooting when you actually have the script. The second one is when you’re actually shooting the movie and the third is when you’re editing the film. I feel like Lingua Franca actually kind of came together in the editing room.
What I like about it is that on paper, it sounds like a social issue drama because it touches on topics that are very topical and very resonant: immigration, the trans experience. It was also able to really clarify my voice as a filmmaker, this being my third feature film and not having gone to film school. My film school was really exposing myself to as many different kinds of cinema growing up and learning from master filmmakers. I felt like it was in this film that I finally found my voice and understood why I’m making cinema and why I’m making art. I want to continue pushing myself creatively and artistically with my future work, including my next feature, which is actually quite ambitious in that it’s set in the Philippines during the 16th century.
DEADLINE: Speaking to that, Lingua Franca was your first film shot stateside. How was it like pivoting from filmmaking in the Philippines to the U.S. — especially with Filipino narratives that aren’t necessarily mainstream?
SANDOVAL: I think what really helped a lot was I surrounded myself with other Filipino immigrant artists that really believed in what the film had to say and championed my voice. That includes people like Jhett Tolentino, the Tony and Grammy award-winning Broadway producer, my other producer, Carlo Velayo, who also has the docuseries Happy Jail on Netflix — it’s actually set in my hometown. There’s also my long time producer, Darlene Malimas. As minority filmmakers in the U.S., it’s very easy for us to feel alone and at a disadvantage. That’s why reaching out and connecting with these people really emboldened me and inspired me. Not just to make Lingua Franca, but to make it when Trump had just gotten elected.
I actually thought of shelving the project indefinitely because I was really just feeling vulnerable and uncertain about what’s going to happen. Having lived through the tail end of a dictatorship in the Philippines, who knows what will happen to, not just any artists, but minority artists like myself. Then my producers told me, “If there’s a time to make this film, it’s now more than ever”, and they were right.
Now that I’m in the U.S., I want to make American stories, but you can take the Filipino out of the Philippines but you can’t always take the Philippines out of the Filipino. I still feel drawn to the Philippines spiritually and creatively. I want to embrace that. Despite pursuing and chasing the American dream here, I can’t deny my roots and I can’t deny where I came from. I want to continue celebrating that as an artist here in the U.S.
DEADLINE: When Hollywood thinks of Asian or Asian American, they immediately go to East Asian. There are times that Southeast and South Asians are left out of the conversation. However, this seems to be changing and we are seeing more narratives from this overlooked part of Asia including the Filipinx community. How do you hope Lingua Franca contributes to the growth of Filipinx representation in Hollywood and the conversation of diversity in film and TV as a whole?
SANDOVAL: Genuinely my hope is that it really gets our foot in the door in Hollywood and there’s just not the edit itself. I think it’s very important that we also at least strike a delicate balance as FilipinX creators and creatives in that while we are making the work that we do in order to represent our community and be visible, we also make sure that Hollywood and that general audience does not pigeonhole us into those boxes. In my case, with Lingua Franca being bought by Ava’s company, ARRAY, there’s going to be some interest in me as the creative talent, but it’s also very easy for Hollywood executives to just put me in a box of like, “Oh, this is a trans filmmaker”, or “This is an immigrant filmmaker,” or “This is a woman filmmaker” or “This is a Filipino filmmaker.”
In their eyes, we can only tell certain kinds of stories, but I ultimately feel that these sociological labels do not fully encapsulate our experience and that we have to seize this opportunity to blow the minds of these Hollywood executives and the audiences with our ingenuity, talent as well as the breadth and diversity of the stories that we can also tell.