Isabel Sandoval is a New York-based Filipina filmmaker. Her feature directorial debut, “Señorita,” premiered in competition at the 2011 Locarno Film Festival, and won the Emerging Director Award at the 2012 Asian-American International Film Festival in New York. Her award-winning second film, “Apparition,” screened at the 2012 Busan International Film Festival and later played at the Museum of Modern Art. With her third feature, “Lingua Franca,” Sandoval is the first transwoman of color to direct and headline a film competing at Venice.
On the occasion of “Lingua Franca” screening at the Slovak Queer Film Festival, we speak with her about the situation with green cards in the US, identity and the concept of transexuality, her cinematic approach towards the concept, and many other topics.
Can you explain the title in connection with the film’s context?
The surface interpretation of Lingua Franca, or bridge language, in the context of the film would be the English through which a Russian-Jewish man and a Filipina immigrant communicate with each other. But I mean the title ironically in that, due to the prejudiced sociopolitical milieu that these two people live in, what’s most crucial and vulnerably honest between them are ultimately left unsaid.
What is the situation with green cards in the US at the moment? Is this thing where people pay natives to marry them a reality? Does the sex change provide more trouble in this case?
There are multiple routes to becoming a permanent resident–mine was by being an artist and filmmaker. And yes, the green card by arranged marriage is really a thing in the US, and I know of some people who have gone that route. The gender transition is a fictional element I added to the narrative but, in the case of the Philippines passing a law prohibiting trans individual from updating their name and gender markers, which is not the case in the US for green card holders, the incongruity between the two documents will certainly add complications.
The film deals with identity, but the one who seems to suffer this time is not the transgender but the heterosexual man. Why did you choose this approach and what are your thoughts on the subject?
My experience has been that I was sure of who I am after my gender transition–which I can understand can be a surprising and alien idea to people who aren’t trans–and that’s why I chose that approach. I want to shake up preconceived notions of what being different, and specifically trans is. On the other hand, the confusion of a heterosexual man developing romantic feelings for a transwoman is not explored enough and I wanted to, with “Lingua Franca”, shine a light on a subject that should be openly exposed and confronted because it could otherwise lead to all kinds of violence against trans individuals.
A lot of films that deal with transgender characters tend to be excessive in their presentation. “Die Beautiful” for example. You approach however, is much more subtle. Why? In general, what is your opinion about the way trans are presented on cinema?
I think trans characters, particularly in the cinema of gender-transitive societies like those in Latin America and the Philippines, tend to be exoticized or caricaturized, especially when the film is directed by straight or cisgendered men. These characters are defined by exaggerated impressions of femininity. With “Lingua Franca”, I wanted to show a radical yet more authentic perspective on being a transwoman as morally complex and layered, thriving in a society that can be prejudiced and unforgiving, though I’m also careful to show that her existence is not an endless slog of misery.
Isaac Banks’s cinematography is great. Can you tell me about your cooperation in the film? Also, what was your approach regarding the erotic scenes?
Isaac and I worked very closely together. He’s a very meticulous and rigorous visual stylist–his compositions can be quite painterly–and I can be spontaneous and intuitive which created a yin-yang dynamic that I feel ultimately benefited the film. There’s a hushed beauty and lyricism to the imagery, even in scenes otherwise suffused with anxiety.
With regard to the erotic scenes, the idea was to get the maximum (sensual) effect with the least exposure, especially when the focus of those scenes was to show the transfemale gaze and a transwoman experiencing pleasure more than the act itself. They were primarily character moments for Olivia rather than erotic scenes per se.
Apart from directing, you also wrote and starred in Lingua Franca. Why and was it difficult taking on all those roles? How is the experience of directing yourself?
Although I wear multiple hats in the film–writing, directing, performing, editing–all of that had to do with being an auteur and crafting a film that was a faithful and uncompromised realization of my vision. In that sense, I felt like I was ultimately doing one thing and not juggling multiple roles. Fassbinder does it, and so does Vincent Gallo and Xavier Dolan. I felt that playing Olivia made sense casting-wise. While the film is not autobiographical, me playing Olivia was authentic casting in that I’m a trans immigrant in New York myself and the main protagonist is the de facto stand-in for the writer-director anyway.
How was the rest of the casting process like?
I was very fortunate that the actors we approached loved the script and the roles I wrote for them. It didn’t hurt that the film touched on urgent and topical social issues which my actors felt very strongly about. Lynn Cohen (Olga), for instance, was an ardent early champion of the film; her own parents were immigrants to the US. Eamon Farren (Alex) liked the script and submitted a self-tape through his agent. I thought he was phenomenal, we did a Skype call and offered him the role soon after.
Can you give me some details about the location the film was shot?
Apart from a day or two in New Jersey (for the slaughterhouse), we mostly shot in Brooklyn, including of course Brighton Beach. I wanted to make a New York movie that was not a typical New York movie, which usually means Manhattan skyscrapers, the Empire State Building or hip millennial neighborhoods like Williamsburg. “Lingua Franca” depicts a kind of tucked-away and forgotten ethnic New York, and Brighton Beach which is populated by Russian-Jewish immigrants in a way feels like it’s stuck in the 1950s and 1960s. In effect,”Lingua Franca” feels to me like a period drama.
Are you working on anything new?
I’m working on a few new projects, including “Park Avenue”, yet another different take on the Filipina-immigrant-in-New-York story whose sensibility is more literary and novelistic, kind of like Vanity Fair by Thackeray. We already have some big Filipino stars attached and now we’re about to cast American actors. I’m also working on a 16th-century psychological drama about Catholic missionaries trying to convert natives in the Philippines, which I hope to shoot a year from now.