An Auteur Arrives: Isabel Sandoval on ‘Lingua Franca’
Lingua Franca is many things: a narrative that spotlights the many untold stories often left in the margins, a lyrical polemic on trans sexuality and desire, an expression of the anxieties induced by Trump’s America, a deeply human story about love, deceit, and trust. But above all, it is Isabel Sandoval’s creation.
In her third feature—which she wrote, directed, and starred in— Sandoval tells two stories: that of Olivia, an undocumented trans caregiver struggling to gain US citizenship, and that of Alex, the Joe Rogan listening, too-hard-drinking grandson of the woman Olivia cares for. As these characters intersect emotionally, physically, and economically, we become witness to the ways in which the possibilities of basic needs like touch, security, love are fraught in our current milieu.
Given its subject, Lingua Franca’s successes have often been framed in the language of politics, identity, and representation. All of this is true, but it would be a disservice not to also acknowledge its successes as a Film (with a capital F, sans qualification). This is a film in which we find Sandoval in confident command of the tools of her craft. Although one can find glimpses of filmmakers as varied as Bergman, Akerman, and Wong Kar-wai throughout, the final product is thoroughly hers and hers alone.
From the Intercom got a chance to catch up with Isabel Sandoval and speak to her about her latest project, her cinematic influences, and developing her voice as a filmmaker.
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today. It’s not often we get to speak to someone who wrote, directed, and starred in a film, so I’m really excited to get your perspective on how the film (which I found really moving) came to be.
Lingua Franca is my third feature, but it is my first after my gender transition, and my first that’s shot and produced in the US. I wrote it shortly after I finished my second feature and I had started transitioning. Halfway through writing the screenplay, Trump got elected, and just like any other minority living in the US at that time— especially the January following his election when there was a big travel ban banning citizens from a number of countries— I was feeling really anxious and tense and vulnerable about my situation. I think those two things, me transitioning and being an immigrant in Trump’s America, really influenced the premise of Lingua Franca.
I wanted to start with the idea of place since milieu, dislocation, and belonging seem to be consistent through-lines throughout the narrative. What does the neighborhood of Brighton Beach represent to you? Why did you choose to set the narrative there?
New York is so fascinating because it’s been said to be a melting pot of immigrants. For that reason, it’s not just these different immigrant groups. When they settle in a specific neighborhood or borough like Brooklyn or Queens, most of the time that neighborhood has the distinct character and personality of the immigrant group that settles there.
In Brooklyn alone, within a few blocks of each other you have Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Italians, Russian Jews, the Caribbean community. I myself live in Crown Heights, which is a more gentrified, hip, and edgier neighborhood in Brooklyn—a lot like Williamsburg in Lena Dunham’s show Girls on HBO— but whenever I would take the subway down to Brighton Beach half an hour away, I felt like I was being whisked into a different world and a different time. Whenever I go there I feel like I’m back in the 1950s and 60s. I found that setting Lingua Franca in a place like Brighton Beach makes it so very different from the images of New York City— that’s more glamorous, the “lifestyle porn”— you see in other movies. I’m showcasing a secret or hidden New York, and I want the film to feel transporting to the audience.
I’ve read elsewhere that you’ve viewed your work as being grounded in a large part in social realism, and that your past films have drawn from filmmaking styles as broad as Wong Kar-wai to Ingmar Bergman. And I noticed that at key moments (Olivia’s anxiety-filled walk home from the subway station, or her fantasizing about Alex) the stylistic register of the film would seem to shift. How did these different influences come together to really form your own unique style in the film?
I watched a lot of films that influenced me during a formative period of me as a filmmaker, around college. I had a pretty specific and idiosyncratic vision for Lingua Franca before I started rolling and shooting it. It was actually only after I finished editing the film, when I sat back and experienced it as a regular viewer and a cinephile that I noticed those influences becoming apparent and revealing themselves to me, sort of after the fact.
Those film references— Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, James Gray’s Two Lovers, which is also set in Brighton Beach, and [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. I think subconsciously I retained certain flourishes and elements from those films that helped me convey the ideas I wanted to express in Lingua Franca. For example, the opening and closing montage of the film is a nod to News from Home by Chantal Akerman, which features a montage of shots around New York City with a voiceover of her mother speaking in French. Subconsciously, my mind as an artist and a creator appropriates these large memories of cinematic experiences and transmutes them as I express myself and my ideas into my own work.
I was wondering if you could tell us more about the process of crafting your own unique aesthetic vision as an auteur. Are there things you’ve learned about yourself as a filmmaker throughout this process?
As a filmmaker, in terms of both choosing the projects that I end up making and the style and aesthetic I adopt: I’ve been quite the daredevil in taking a lot of risks aesthetically and thematically. My very first feature Señorita— which is a kind of pulpy noir-melodrama lovechild of Almodóvar and Wong Kar-wai— was very very different from the art-house Filipino films that were being made at that time heavily drawing on the social realist style.
From the start I wanted to distinguish myself as an artist—I wanted to make a film that no one else is making, and in that sense I’m more of a wildcard because certain international film festivals are looking for certain aesthetics. That’s how some filmmakers from different countries like the Philippines—I hate to use the term ‘poverty porn’— they kind of jump on that bandwagon because it’s the trendy one and gets you programs.
For me, I just wanted to do my thing, and I did that as well for Apparition, which was a very austere, formalist work more in the tradition of European art-house and very much different from the Filipino dramas of that time which were more loud and hysterical. And also Lingua Franca. On paper it sounds like a textbook social issue drama, but I used that template, and the expectations that go with that type of film, to subvert that and do something surprising and unexpected. I used lyricism, sensuality, subtlety and delicacy in a film you expect to be more performatively angry and indignant and loud and didactic.
I think it’s surprising people and giving them something they did not expect. But also as a filmmaker I think I hit a turning point making Lingua Franca. Before, in making my first few features, I was pretty slavishly doing cinematic homages. I had a grasp of what a good film looks like, but after Lingua Franca I like to think I’m finally understanding what a good film is, what makes good art. The other major thing I learned—and this is to paraphrase Maya Angelou— is that at the end of the day, people are not going to remember your characters or the intricacies of your plot. But they’ll never forget how you movie made them feel. For me, cinema is really the art of manipulating artificial elements like image and sound to create genuine and powerful emotional experiences in the audience. The more distinctive and singular and unique that emotional experience is, the more your art and your film lingers with someone.
You’ve mentioned that it was a highly conscious decision to stay away from overt violence and tragedy, but the film certainly doesn’t seem ignorant to its possibility (its absence often feels present). Could you talk a bit about the film’s relationship (and non-relationship) to violence, and how you came to craft that relationship?
Certainly. But I also didn’t want to portray the relationship between Alex and Olivia as just lollipops and roses. I wanted them to be fleshed out and realistic characters in the particular milieu that they’re in, which is present day America under Trump. But I wanted to explore a different kind of violence in relationships that’s more insidious precisely because it’s invisible and not obvious—and that’s emotional and psychological violence, like when Alex gaslights her.
It’s also not just a violence that’s specific to transgender women or women. It’s a violence that exists where there is a power imbalance between two people. On the one hand Alex is an American citizen; he’s a man. Olivia is an immigrant without papers and she’s very much fearful for her well-being because of that. And she’s also a transgender woman who is becoming involved with a man who doesn’t know that she’s trans, and she doesn’t know how he’ll react.
Because my undergraduate degree is in psychology, I feel like I really got into the psyche of these characters and how they manipulate people who are weaker than them. But I was also careful in not portraying Alex as an outright villain. He’s very much a flawed product of the environment that he grew up in—a conservative, misogynistic, and transphobic environment—and he reacted the way he did because he doesn’t know any better.
Could you tell us more about your decision to render the narrative around both Alex and Olivia, and not, for example, Olivia alone?
I wanted the film to be an emotional thriller. I wanted to give equal weight to these two characters because I wanted to cultivate empathy for them as characters within this milieu. I like to think I’m a humane and compassionate filmmaker in that I don’t see characters as irredeemable or as evil. They’re just flawed and conflicted, and therefore human. While I wanted, of course, to show what Olivia is going through emotionally and psychologically, I believe we are at this cultural and political moment where it’s easy to villainize someone like Alex. I wanted the film to be accessible to people who find themselves in Alex’s situation and see him attempt to process his own feelings and work at becoming more mature about the situation that he’s finding himself in.
I noticed a lot of beautifully composed shots where people were shown divided in the frame. There were a few shots involving fractured perspectives of people through mirrors that I thought were stunning. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about how you thought about, and used, framing throughout the film?
I think visually, I’ve always been fascinated by the dissonance between a placid or a tranquil surface image— where it’s characters framed with a static camera that just observes them move around a room in relation to each other spatially—and the tensions that are roiling underneath. The more placid and more still my image is, that usually means there’s so much more going on underneath. Like in that climactic scene in the motel room with a lot of mirrors, the camera doesn’t move, and even though there are cuts the shots are still in order to belie the turmoil and emotional turbulence that’s happening within the characters. I feel like by just having the camera there, the audience will feel that tension more palpably.
Lingua Franca is now streaming on Netflix.
This interview was conducted via phone by Leo Kim on August 27, 2020.