About halfway through Lingua Franca, protagonist Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) sleeps with Alex (Eamon Farren), the grandson of the woman she’s been hired to care for. Any depiction of a trans woman experiencing sexual pleasure is notable in its rarity; still, this one feels revolutionary. There are no gratuitous shots of writhing naked limbs, no sensationalizing of Olivia’s body; instead, the camera focuses mostly on her face as she experiences the fierce pleasure of release, tainted with the fear of giving herself over to a man who doesn’t know she’s trans, and could potentially harm her for it. It’s a scene shot entirely though the trans female gaze — and it’s been a long time coming.
“I’m making people think that they're watching a sex scene, when it is in fact a character moment for Olivia,” Sandoval told Refinery29 over the phone. “Seeing someone think is such an assertion of their identity and personhood. It's like Rene Descartes’ [famous quote], ‘I think, therefore I exist.’”
Making a movie about an undocumented trans Filipinx caregiver that doesn’t also feel like a PSA is no small feat. But as writer, director, editor, producer, and star of Lingua Franca, quintuple-threat Sandoval has crafted one of the most unforgettable movies of the year, a quiet but startling snapshot of a woman’s life that feels intimate and complex, all while inexorably enmeshed in larger social context.
The film, now available to stream on Netflix in partnership with Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, is Sandoval’s third, but also marks a series of firsts. It’s her first movie since transitioning, her first set in the United States, and in 2019, she became the very first openly trans filmmaker to present a film in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
“I wanted to prove myself,” Sandoval said. “This is really the first film where I'm consciously giving the view of a minority to American film industry and Hollywood. I wanted to feel like I'm able to be both the talent in front and behind the camera.”
Lingua Franca centers around Olivia, a live-in caregiver for Olga (Lynn Cohen) in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, chosen by the director precisely because, like Olivia, it’s not the kind of place one usually sees in movies.
“A neighborhood like Brighton Beach, which is stubbornly and defiantly Russian-Jewis, in both its culture and character, allows me to showcase a different part of my work,” Sandoval said. “It's very different from what you see in common New York movies: Manhattan and Williamsburg.”
“I wanted the movie to be at its core an immigrant story,” Sandoval continued. “In New York City especially, it's really clear: People that call themselves the true Americans, two generations ago, were foreigners. That is very much the case here. Olivia and Olga are most similar in that they are immigrant women who migrated to the U.S. in different eras. It's just that, Olivia is the more obvious immigrant because she moved to the US more recently, whereas Olga moved to the U.S. 60 years ago.”
Lingua Franca is a web of narrative tensions: There’s the romantic and sexual attraction between Olivia and Alex, Olga’s grandson recovering from addiction who moves in with her while he’s trying to get back on his feet. There’s the resentment Alex feels towards the rest of his family, who continue to treat him as a hopeless loser; but overarching all of that is the fact that Olivia doesn’t have any papers, and lives with a constant dull fear of ICE showing up at her door in the middle of the night.
Sandoval stresses that the film isn’t autobiographical — ”although Olivia and I are both Filipino trans women and immigrants living in New York City, I'm lucky in that I have papers” — she does see herself as an auteur filmmaker, infusing her work with her own personal sensibility. Hence the sex scenes, which feel unlike any we’ve seen in the past, but also the way Lingua Franca handles Olivia’s personhood. Being trans and Filipinx is part of her identity, but those aren’t the only traits that define her. In fact, the film is just as remarkable for what it doesn’t show as it is for what it does.
“Films that have a trans protagonist are almost always directed by cisgender men,” Sandoval said. “They tend to usually obsess over the gender transition process and end up exoticizing it and sensationalizing it. But this movie starts where those trans stories tend to end. [Olivia]’s transition is behind her, it’s in the past. The film just starts out immersing the audience in her daily life, when she wakes up in the morning, and looks after Olga. The camera is just observing her in her natural habitat.”
Sandoval’s goal was to subvert audiences’ expectations. You might come into this movie expecting a grand statement about immigration, trans issues, or Asian identity. But while Lingua Franca undeniably emphasizes all these things, it does so by way of a distinct and engrossing story, told in Sandoval’s muted, almost retro style. Likewise, she said, the title, which hints as a spiritual common language between two people, is somewhat of an intentional misnomer for a movie where so much is left unsaid.
“Olivia has a secret,” Sandoval said. “She's not able to tell Alex that she's trans and that she's undocumented out of a sense of shame for those things. She shouldn't feel that way, but I have felt that way before, and that was a real and valid feeling that I needed to overcome. As for Alex, he feels a sense of shame over having grown up in a community that can be conservative and misogynistic and transphobic. He feels a sense of shame for having feelings for a woman who is transgender. These two characters must slowly muster the courage to articulate how they feel for each other.”
With Lingua Franca, Sandoval has established herself as a filmmaker to watch. She describes her next movie, called Tropical Gothic, as a “colonial drama with surreal elements that is set in the 16th century in the Philippines, about the haunting of a Spanish conquistador by a priestess.”
Her films, she says, have one common theme. “They're about women with secrets.”