Isabel Sandoval

“Every image or sound is a vessel for emotion: rapture, despair, sensuousness, fury, a combination of these. That makes cinema a kind of legerdemain: the art of sculpting such seemingly artificial elements to create a singular, genuine emotional experience.”

–excerpt from Isabel Sandoval’s director’s statement

Isabel Sandoval is not just about making great films, she is about making meaningful films that express her vision and point of view. Through her personal approach to filmmaking, you feel more connected to her and the world she is in. I love her fresh take on the city of New York, and how she elevates the marginalized through her third feature, “Lingua Franca”. The film is so much more than the premise, but the premise is a strong foundation to her film.

“Lingua Franca” is about a trans female immigrant, Olivia (Isabel Sandoval), working as a caretaker for an older woman with dementia, named Olga, with the goal of getting a green card and becoming a citizen. While working for Olga, she starts a relationship with Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), who does not know she’s trans.

We sadly lost Lynn Cohen, who plays Olga, earlier this year. Lynn does an amazing job in one of her final roles. She was very passionate about playing Olga, and you can listen to her passionate words on the film’s IG page about this film.

Beyond being an amazing filmmaker and actor, Isabel Sandoval is a great writer. Cinema Femme is not only about sharing stories of womxn in film, we also share advice from one filmmaker to another. Isabel’s piece in Filmmaker magazine is very powerful (here are links to Part One and Part Two of the article).

“Lingua Franca” is now streaming on Netflix. This film is a must-watch, especially during these times. Thank you Isabel for your poignant work that’s full of beauty.

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: A French filmmaker once said that directors make the same film over and over again over the course of their careers. We keep revisiting the same themes, issues and conflicts. For me, my go-to theme that I always become drawn to are women who are either marginalized or dis-empowered, who are forced to make intensely personal or private decisions in fraught socio-political settings. That’s what happened in my second feature, “Apparition”, which is about Roman Catholic men living in a monastery in the woods who find themselves under siege on the eve of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in 1971. 

When I started writing “Lingua Franca,” I was transitioning. I was undergoing my gender transition. And halfway through my writing, that was when Trump actually got elected. I was plunged into a despair and hopelessness. It was a dark time, and I think that was an emotional state that I wanted to capture and instill in those two things, my transition and Trump’s election. Both shaped the premise of “Lingua Franca”.  It’s about this undocumented trans woman who is trying to pursue a path to citizenship, and in the process becomes emotionally involved with a man who doesn’t know that she’s transgender. 

MARTIN: I love how you use New York as the backdrop of the film as you explore the fear of being an immigrant during the times of Trump’s immigration ban. Could you go into your thoughts of using New York as the world of your film, and exploring what it felt like to be an immigrant in a city that was built by immigrants?

SANDOVAL: I am very cognizant of the fact that there have been a lot of films set in New York, and they have a particular gaze of New York. You see that with the Safdie Brothers movies, Spike Lee movies , even in Lena Dunham’s series “Girls”. It was important to me to distinguish myself as a filmmaker, and as a voice, one who was Filipina, trans and an immigrant, and impose my singular aesthetic and perspective that feels different than those of other New York movies that have been made before. 

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Olga (Lynn Cohen)

I felt like Brighton Beach in particular is a defiantly and even stubbornly immigrant neighborhood. It’s a very Russian Jewish neighborhood. In a way, it feels like a self-contained world. It has its own character, personality, and it’s extremely remote. I live in Crown Heights, which is still in Brooklyn, but it’s 30 minutes north of Brighton Beach. Whenever I go to Brighton Beach, I feel that I’m whisked off into a totally different planet or country. I just wanted to show a hidden or secret New York that we don’t see a lot of in cinema.

Aside from Olivia and Alex, the other important relationship in the film is between Olivia and Olga, in that they are mirror characters. These are two immigrant women who migrated to the US at different points in their lives, and are experiencing their own kinds of displacement. With Olivia, that displacement is political, geographical and it’s more obvious because she is an immigrant without papers. In Olga’s case, the displacement is more psychological, because she is dealing with dementia. Her sense of self and memory is slowly slipping away from her. I wanted to establish their relationship early in the film with that scene in the kitchen.

Alex (Eamon Farren) and Olivia (Isabel Sandoval )

MARTIN: I love the exploration of sexual awakening in the film, the way you film the intimate scenes. What were you trying to represent or bring to the gaze through those scenes?

SANDOVAL: To be honest, those were the first scenes that I wrote, and then I built the story of the film around them. It’s because those images represent a kind of gaze in an intimate scene that I’d never seen before in American cinema. You rarely see the female gaze when it comes to desire, in sexuality, and much less in the trans female gaze. As a filmmaker, I’d like to think I’m pioneering in a way that I’m a trans filmmaker who’s actually making a film about trans protagonists. I want to include that kind of scene. In the first scene, it’s more of a fantasy sequence. It’s a trans woman who is the agent, the active agent of desire, and not just its object. She’s actually comfortable and celebrating her sexuality in that scene.

In the actual love scene, I wanted to do away with the predictable approach, which is to string together a bunch of images of naked bodies gyrating against each other. There is quite an obsession and fixation over trans bodies in particular, but I just wanted to have the camera hover over her face and take in Olivia’s expression. She’s enjoying herself sexually, but she’s also starting to realize that she’s becoming sexually intimate with a man is not aware that she’s trans. You can see the sense of hesitation and worry about her face. I shoot it in a way that can make it feel so raw and gritty in order to achieve that type of realism. I think you see these conflicted emotions in Olivia’s face, and it ultimately helped to flesh her out as a character, and give her depth and complexity. It’s like a decoy in that I set up what on the surface feels like a sex scene, but it’s also a pivotal character moment for Olivia.

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Alex (Eamon Farren)

MARTIN: Eamon is very impressive in this role. I first saw him in Twin Peaks: The Return, and he’s such a versatile actor.

SANDOVAL: I’m also a big fan of Eamon’s work in Twin Peaks: The Return. I thought he had a very interesting face as well. He has an interesting character face. I thought he could really add an aura, an erotic danger, but also humanity to someone like Alex.

MARTIN: The film is so sensory, and what I mean by that is that you can feel it. The way the music is present, but quiet, yet part of a scene. And the sounds of the train, the wind, and the snow. Can you talk to me about the use of sound in the film and the feeling you were trying to convey through the sound and ambient noise?

SANDOVAL: I think part of my approach is that I really like mining the tension from the dissonance between the placid and serene surface image and the tensions rolling underneath. In the opening and closing montage, for instance, you see images of Brighton Beach, but it’s juxtaposed with the voice-over of my character, speaking my native tongue, Cebuano. You also hear the sound bites of Trump talking about targeting immigrants as well as news reports of immigrant children being snatched away from their parents. I kept them to a sound bite because I feel sound really does do a lot of heavy lifting, in terms of influencing the mood and atmosphere of a film. So that is what I wanted to do in a film like “Lingua Franca.” As she is trying to live her life in the spaces that she feels safest, the world outside still threatens to intrude and invade the cocoon she set for herself.

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval)

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female and non-binary filmmakers?

SANDOVAL: My advice would be take as much creative risk as you can, especially as you are making your first work, because you still have the freedom to do so. At the end of the day, with all of the festivals, and the industry, they are not necessarily looking for the most technically polished work, or the one with the highest production value, but they are all looking for talent. They are looking for a unique, distinctive, and singular voice. You should just go for it. 

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