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Filmmaker Isabel Sandoval

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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Isabel Sandoval.


She's a filmmaker who grew up in the Philippines and later moved to New York City after unique experiences are expertly expressed. Through her medium of choice, she has made three feature films to date, including “Senorita,” “Apparition,” and “Lingua Franca.” Her work has premiered at several distinguished festivals, including Stockholm, Vancouver and AFI Fest. Isabelle Sandoval's most recent film, Lingua Franca, follows the story of a transgender immigrant, Olivia, living in Brighton Beach who has not yet obtained her green card. Her journey is further obscured when a cisgender man enters her life romantically and Olivia wrestles with the idea of sharing her status as trans and illegal. Lingua Franca was recently curated by Indiana University Cinema's Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker series Isabel Sandoval spoke over video conferencing with Janae Cummings.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Isabel, welcome to Profiles.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

JANAE CUMMINGS: In your short career, in short being 10 or 15 years long, I think you have made three feature films, and each has been a festival circuit darling that's won awards and accolades. The Museum of Modern Art cited you as a “rarity among the young generation of Filipino filmmakers for your muted, serene aesthetic.” And before we get into the films themselves, can you tell us about your history as a filmmaker? Is this where you've always wanted to be?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Sure. I'd be happy to talk about how I became a filmmaker. So I was born and raised in Cebu, which is the second largest city in the Philippines. I was an only child. And I was raised by my mother. So she was a single parent for the most part. One of my earliest memories as a child was when I was four years old, my mother took me to you would call the place like a movie palace. So one of those big movie theaters that were built before the Second World War and the first movie that I remember seeing was a comedy starring the Filipino Charlie Chaplin and his four-year-old son. The movie itself was pretty mindless. But I just remember being in awe of this huge image being projected onto the screen. And I think that's how my love affair with the movies started. I did not go to film school. Actually, I have an undergraduate degree in psychology which has helped in writing characters and their motivations. And after finishing college, I moved to Manila for a year where I worked in marketing and then moved to the U.S. I came to New York City to pursue an MBA at NYU, again, not a film degree, but a business degree where I specialize in marketing, but also media and entertainment, because I feel like it took me quite a while to come around and really look at filmmaking as a viable grown-up career and calling how I became a filmmaker was really just exposing myself to as many different kinds of cinema, arthouse, independent, classic films. And that's how I discovered the likes of Kurosawa, Ozu, Hitchcock, Chantal Ackerman, Wong Kar-wai. And what's funny in the Philippines is that there isn't really any - a considerable distribution of these classic bricks, but there was a lot of piracy happening. So I managed to get hold of pirated DVDs, copies of some of these classics. And that's how I got introduced to these filmmakers. And I learned how to make movies from these cinematic masters. And while making my own movies on the set of making my own films.

JANAE CUMMINGS: So you grow up with a love of film. You don't go to film school. Why did you choose to study psychology and then marketing instead of heading off to study film?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah. I just felt like conceiving of films. Like my creative expression actually found itself in making films are coming up with stories that I wanted to make movies of. And I just thought it was so pure, and it felt like second nature to me that I thought if I went to film school, I would end up absorbing the philosophy and aesthetic sensibility of the teachers that I studied under. And I didn't want to circumscribe and limit my own creativity as a storyteller and as a film artist within those parameters. And yes, I understand that I took a pretty unexpected roundabout path to getting to where I am now.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Well it's a successful path. So good choice.


JANAE CUMMINGS: Back to the MoMA's comment about your muted, serene aesthetic. Film curator Jeff Jensen once said that she was, quote, very impressed by your reserved and beautiful film that stands out as distinct from other Filipino films we have seen. Can you explain to us a bit more about Filipino cinema generally and how that differs from your style and where you took your style inspiration?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Philippine cinema can be divided into two main schools or genres, so to speak. There is the mainstream or the studio produced Philippine cinema. And that's usually very genre oriented. But the common denominator is that they tend to be melodramatic. And the comedies tend to be over-the-top and slapstick, which is very much similar to the cinematic tradition and sensibility of Latin American countries, which were also colonized by Spain. So they used to be Spanish colonies. Whereas art has fucking cinema, starting from the 70s in particular veers towards social realism. So a lot of the films by  and seen the Criterion Collection, they only feature one Filipino filmmaker and he's considered the social realist master of the Philippines. His name is Lino Brocka. And his characters tend to be living in the slums. So that aesthetic has kind of lingered and evolved over the last 50 years and even through the last 15 years or so especially, it's evolved into a kind of gritty neorealism. And the most prominent Philippine director is Brillante Mendoza. He won best director in Cannes in 2009. And his films are about people who live in the slums and observing their lives. It's been accused - that kind of cinema has been labeled somewhat as being exploitative. And I hate to use the term, but, “poverty porn.” It's been called that way for - by some critics. And I think my own sensibility is inspired more by European art house like Ingmar Bergman and Michael Haneke, but also the lyricism and poetry and sensuality of the cinema of Langkawi, especially “In the Mood For Love,” “2046.” And it was a bit of a gamble from a - it was risky for me to explore a sensibility that's really distinct and unique from the popular art house cinema conventions at that time. So I was very fortunate that Locarno Film Festival, which is a prestigious festival in Europe and a lot of their alumni filmmakers eventually graduate to Venice. Berlin actually programmed my debut features “Senorita.” And that's encouraged and empowered me to continue taking risks and really find my own voice as a filmmaker. That's different from what's being made and what's being produced in the Philippines.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Did you experience any pushback going down your own path versus Filipino art house?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Not really, because Philippine art house cinema is kind of not mainstream. People are not threatened by it. I had all the independence and creative freedom to explore my evolving aesthetic as a filmmaker within that area.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is filmmaker Isabel Sandoval. She's speaking with Janae Cummings.

JANAE CUMMINGS: We just talked about “Senorita” briefly. When it comes to all of your features, they have focused on what you have described as women with secrets. You debuted with “Senorita,” which was a political noir in which you starred, followed that with “Apparition,” which focused on monastic nuns, I believe, that were under siege during the Marcos dictatorship in the 70s and is now considered a classic, contemporary Filipino classic. And now we have “Lingua Franca,” which we'll talk about most of today. You're the lead again. And it's a love story of the undocumented and transgender experience that takes center stage. What is compelling for you about women with secrets? Talk to us about this general theme and how that carries through in your work.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Having been a psychology major in my undergraduate degree, I have the belief that art is essentially a projection of unconscious or subconscious desires and conflicts and unresolved issues by the artist. The fact that I'm gravitating towards or I'm drawn to stories about women with secrets, is you know, interestingly enough, something that I did not consciously choose. It's just that that when I come up with stories and conflicts, they tend to pull me into that direction. And what just fascinates me specifically as women, because they harbor certain secrets. It's them in a way being split psychologically. And there is the contrast between the light and the darkness. They're navigating two worlds in a way between a truth that is only known to them, part of the truth that others know and see. And now that I think about it, that might actually be part of the reason why. And I'm thinking out loud that eventually I realized that I was trans and that there was a public self that I was showing to people and there's also a private consciousness of subjectivity that belonged only to me and that I protected fiercely. And that's why I feel like my stories - if there was a genre that I felt that most home with, it would be film noir. You have these from the towers that harbor these very intensely personal secrets around which the plot fundamentally turns. I just felt like I diagnosed myself right there [laughter].

JANAE CUMMINGS: So talk to us a little bit more about “Senorita.” It is a film that I haven't been able to find. I'm not sure how many people have seen it lately. Can you tell us more about it, how it developed and how that story came through?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yes. So when I move to the U.S., maybe one or two years after that, I came across “Klute,” the 1971 movie by Alan Pakula that starred Jane Fonda as a sex worker who's trying to leave behind her past and start anew. And she becomes embroiled in a murder mystery in New York City. And that was the first time that I saw or it came out in nineteen seventy one, which is almost 50 years ago. But I thought that the conception of her character, Bree Daniels, in that film was so modern and that she's so complex and layered and nuanced. And there's so much ambiguity and ambivalence in her character, considering that the role of a sex worker tends to be a very stereotypical flat role in cinema. And that's what inspired the basic premise, really, of “Senorita,” which is about a former sex worker who moves from the city to the province to look after a childhood friend's young son while her friend has to go abroad to work. And the trans woman sex worker becomes involved in the local politics of that small town when she realizes that the incumbent town mayor is corrupt and seeking re-election is a crony of one of her VIP clients back in the city. So she decides to go back to the city once a week or every two weeks to meet with that old client and use the money that she earns from their encounters to fund the campaign of the underdog candidate running opposite the corrupt town mayor. So it's very twisty  and twisted. I just don't know how I came up with that really crazy premise. And I think that's what the Locarno programmers responded to and that I was really coming up with what might seem to be such an outlandish and outrageous premise and infuse the film with a kind of moral gravitas, because it's really about the political disillusionment of someone who's thinking that she could change a corrupt system and ends up becoming corrupt herself.

JANAE CUMMINGS: How much of you is in the characters that you play?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: They're not autobiographical. But they definitely personal in that I wrote these characters. And there's a certain level of psychological and emotional truth about me that's in these characters. One is that I like to think of myself as fiercely independent. And I don't want to conform to the system or what the majority are the public tend to believe or subscribe to, and that these characters tend to rebel against authority and established systems. It's obvious incinerator because she is going against the town mayor. And her former client is trying to pursue a path to a utopia, even though she's doing it through morally dubious means.

JANAE CUMMINGS: With your third and most recent film, “Lingua Franca,” you are the first trans director to compete at the Venice and BFI London Film Festival. But what I think is perhaps even more noteworthy is that you had to step up not only to write and to act, but also to produce and to edit and direct. Do you think that this film could have been made without you taking on all of those power positions?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: No, to be honest, just because this is also a film that I had to, like, fight tooth and nail for to make the way that I envisioned it, to be developing the film and meeting with potential investors, financiers. There were definitely some people who said that, oh, I'll invest in the film if you made it more exciting and exciting, meaning to have scenes or episodes of physical violence against a transwoman character. And that's kind of become a lazy trope in films featuring transwoman who become intimately involved with cis gender men who are not aware that there's transgender. And while we were in post-production, production studio that actually did put in money for the film, hated my ending in the rough cut because it was, you know, it's a Philippine studio. So again, it's very different from a lot of the melodramatic, obvious films where the ending is neatly tied up and there is a happy ending. But here it's a lot more muted and subdued and uncertain. But I stuck to the ending that I want, and I felt very vindicated when a few weeks later we got word from Venice that their programming the film.

JANAE CUMMINGS: That is something I wanted to talk about a bit, because the character, your character, Olivia, develops the relationship with the grandson, Alex. As you were saying in most films, a cis-gender man, realizing that he's been sleeping with a trans woman leads to anger and violence and worse. When you were writing the film, were those tropes in your mind as something to avoid when you were going through the creative process?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yes, certainly. And it was by design that on paper, “Lingua Franca” sounds like a textbook social issue drama. I mean, it touches on immigration and a trans experience. So in a way, I'm setting up certain expectations in the audience of the kind of film that it's going to be, because a lot of these films that have been made before. But I use that as a jumping off point to subvert those expectations and to take a different approach emotionally and thematically with the film.

JANAE CUMMINGS: There's so much about it that feels very revolutionary to see a trans woman's experience of pleasure on screen and that pleasure happening through the lens of a trans woman doing things on her own terms. It feels like something that's never happened before and therefore very special.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Those sensual scenes are actually among the first ones that I wrote for “Lingua Franca.” I started writing it while I was transitioning. And so just the changes not only within myself, physically and emotionally, but in how other people related to me and seeing, for example, men and getting male attention in that way. And during that time, I became more conscious about how female desire and sensuality is being portrayed and depicted in film and pop culture, especially trans female sexuality, and that's why I wanted to show scenes where a trans woman is not simply the object of desire, but the one actively desiring. I think that's such an assertion of selfhood and agency. And dignity, I think it's also very key to giving Olivia as a character depth and complexity that goes beyond her merely being, one, an immigrant or an undocumented immigrant, and, two, as a trans woman. Yeah, it's about the trans female gaze that I wanted to show on screen and in American cinema in particular at this moment.

JANAE CUMMINGS: There's a film released around the same time, “The Guardian Left Behind,” about an undocumented trans woman experience in New York with far different outcomes. And that was a film that was very powerful. And it was, in many ways, kind of traumatic in ways to see. And so I was waiting. I was watching “Lingua Franca” kind of like, what is going to happen? Any time now, some kind of violence is going to happen. I need to be ready. And it never did. And it was it was such an amazing relief to get through this story from beginning to end. And it is kind of ended at peace, I guess.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah, that's why exactly I wanted it to feel different. I mean, what's the difference between watching or hearing about news of trans women of color, black trans women in particular, being victims of violence and watching a scripted movie and a dramatic narrative that essentially gives you the same thing? And it can be a tricky, problematic proposition because where do you draw the line between depicting this violence or being exploitative? And I didn't want to exploit the depiction of violence to glorify myself as a filmmaker. Not that - I haven't seen “The Guardian Left Behind.” And I am not saying that about that film. But there is a tendency for disingenuous filmmakers to make films that touch on social issues because that's the kind of film that gets them attention and gets them program at major festivals, especially when they're not part of the communities that they make those movies about.

JANAE CUMMINGS: And I don't bring that up to malign that film in any way, just simply noting the similarities and then the kind of vast differences, the outcomes of that. So but with Lingua Franca, beyond the trans experience, we're also speaking about the undocumented experience and your character, Olivia, the caretaker for Olga, who is an aging Russian immigrant. She lives in Brighton Beach in New York. And so we're watching also as you're trying to fast track your naturalization amidst the Trump administration's wildly xenophobic rhetoric and crackdowns. These things are happening in real time in the film. It seems like a beautifully timed way to enter our national conversation at this moment. And with you playing the lead, I'm curious. I know we've spoken a little bit about these things not being fully autobiographical, but how much of those experiences were yours?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: They were my friend's experiences, for sure. I have a few friends who have arranged green card marriages. And so while they're not autobiographical, they are personal in that they're a composite of the experiences of a few of my good friends as well. And psychologically and emotionally, I very much identify with Olivia, being a transwoman immigrant living in Brooklyn myself.

JANAE CUMMINGS: During the film, there's a point where we note that you're needing to alter passports due to ICE crackdowns and your character says this isn't me anymore, neither my name or my gender. Can you explain to us why the Filipino passport needed to be altered? I wasn't sure.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: About 10 years ago, the Philippine legislature or courts mandated that transgender individuals are not going to be able to update their name and gender marker in official documents and IDs as well as passports. So personally, like in my situation, I have a U.S. green card that has my current name and gender marker, but I still have a Filipino passport that has my old one, my old name and gender marker. And that's the reason why since Trump got elected, I didn't travel abroad. And the first time that I actually did that was when "Lingua Franca" was programmed in Venice, and even then I was really hesitating until nearly the last minute whether to get a Schengen visa to travel to Italy. And in terms of how much he tried to oppress immigrants and transgender individuals these past four years, I was ready that when I would pass through passport control coming back to JFK, that I would be pulled aside and asked, why do you have different information in your U.S. green card and your passport? Oh, you travel to this film festival in Italy. What is your movie about? It's about an undocumented (laughter) Filipino transwoman. If we had another president, I don't think I would be safe traveling, but it's a good thing that I did not. I traveled back with my producer and we did not have any issue coming back. But it's still always at the back of my mind when I travel abroad, this anxiety and nervousness about what would happen.


AARON CAIN: Filmmaker Isabel Sandoval in conversation with Janae Cummings. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Isabel Sandoval's feature films include "Senorita," "Apparition," and "Lingua Franca."

JANAE CUMMINGS: Can you speak to us a little about the differences in treatment of transgender people in the Philippines versus the United States?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Here in the U.S., especially in the blue states, and I'm lucky that I transitioned in New York, that there's a genuine and more so there's a genuine acceptance of queer people, trans and nonbinary whereas in the Philippines it's more tolerated, really, than accepted. There is a semblance that they are - we are being accepted, but it's at heart, at its core, the Philippines is a very conservative because it's neurotically Catholic. I mean, it's conservative and macho and that it's allowing trans women to be themselves as being - it prescribes a certain specific image of transwoman in that they are hyper feminine, sometimes a little frivolous, scatterbrained. It's such a flat and stereotypical and caricature-ish image of the transwoman just to prop up the masculinity and the macho self-image of the men in the Philippines. And that's why if I had stayed in the Philippines, I don't think I would have realized that I was trans and transitioned. It was actually after I moved to the US when I saw on YouTube different transgender individuals chronicling their own transition process. And one of them works as a non-profit, one as a writer, a few people were married with families and children - that I started to realize I was asking myself the same questions that these people were asking themselves.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Have you heard from other trans and non-binary people who may have seen the film and found some inspiration or want to reach out to you maybe for support?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah, definitely. And it even started when I was still traveling because this is pre-pandemic. I was traveling with a film to different festivals internationally back in London, in Poland, in Germany. And it's always very heartening, gratifying to hear that. And I never would have thought that this film, which is so personal and idiosyncratic and uncompromised, that I feel like I would be the only one to really get it and understand it, that it would - and this kind of subjectivity would resonate to people other than myself and in different cultures and in different countries.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You've said in previous interviews that though "Lingua Franca" is your third film, it feels like your first. Can you talk to us a bit about that?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yes, I definitely felt like it was my first because, one, it was my first after my gender transition and second, it was also my first to be set in and shot in the US. - and so I will be working with a totally different system - and also how people will be looking at me and relating to me as a filmmaker. And so while making "Lingua Franca," I had certain pushback. I'm not necessarily going to chalk it up to being trans and a woman filmmaker, though, of course, it definitely is part of that, but also because I wore multiple hats and that I wanted to be the author of the film, both in front of the camera and behind it. I felt like I had to prove myself as a storyteller. And in the last two - few months when I would be interviewed about the film and they would ask me why I chose to wear these different hats, it's because I'm on a tour. And I said that from mostly an aesthetic point of view. But I realize now that it's also political, especially being made at this particular moment in that underrepresented filmmakers, minority filmmakers might be included or featured in films about them, but they never really have control or authority about the narrative and what's being told about them. And so there is definitely a first-person sensibility and point of view that I wanted to showcase with a film like "Lingua Franca." And because I know that people like myself don't get many opportunities to tell our own stories, I wanted it to count and I wanted it to matter.

JANAE CUMMINGS: I'm going to step away from the film momentarily to speak a little bit, pull a bit on the thread about representation. This summer, "Lingua Franca" was picked up by Ava DuVernay's ARRAY distribution company for global release on Netflix. And ARRAY is committed to highlighting diverse and marginalized voices. What does it mean for you right now to be a woman of color in the film industry? What opportunities do you have now that maybe you didn't have before with ARRAY?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: It's been a dream working with Ava and ARRAY. Ava is a true maverick and that she got her start outside the actual film industry. She wasn't a filmmaker. She started out as a publicist, I think. And she's created opportunities for herself. And now she's helping kick the door open to the industry for underrepresented filmmakers like me. And when I look at the roster of ARRAY, her film distribution collective, what I'm most proud of and incredibly honored about is that it's not just about representation and diversity for the sake of it, these films that they acquired truly have daring visionary voices behind them. "Residue," very recently "Residue" by Merawi Gerima, which is about the gentrification happening in D.C. that also premiered in Venice just last month, last year there was "Burning Cane" by Phillip Youmans. And so what's great about that is that Ava is not just distributing independent films per se, but she is curating and building a bold new American cinematic canon of films by filmmakers that might fall through the cracks by the so-called tastemakers and because they're not being distributed by studio distributors.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Now, being in this kind of ARRAY family, having this support, does this mean that you don't have to do it all anymore?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: I've been very, very lucky in that the support by ARRAY they've worked very, very hard to get the film out, to promote the film, that it's definitely opened doors for me. I've had meetings with major talent agencies and actually as of earlier this week, I'm not able to announce it yet, but I'm being repped by one of the major talent agencies as a writer, director and actor. And they've also committed to helping package and put the financing together for my next feature film, which is a lot more ambitious than "Lingua Franca." And separately I also pitched a TV series to a major cable channel back in July and they picked up the TV series after watching "Lingua Franca." And now they're paying me to write the pilot episode of that TV series.

JANAE CUMMINGS: That's fantastic. I want to explore more of this exciting news, but also I want to talk a bit more about the film. I think I would be remiss. We talk about the title "Lingua Franca," and most people know that to mean something that is like a common language, but so much of this film is what's unsaid. Could you explain the title a bit?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yes. So you mentioned the dictionary definition of lingua franca, and I actually use the title, ironically, in the film, because, as you said, although the characters communicate with each other through the shared language, what is most important between them is what is left unarticulated. And that, in fact, the pauses and the silences and the gaps carry more emotional and dramatic weight in truth than the dialogue between the characters. And I think that's also the best articulation of my sensibility as a director in that having made three films I'm becoming more of a purely visual filmmaker and I have an ambivalent relationship with dialogue in that I use dialogue not to let characters express how they really feel or think but to obfuscate and to hide behind the words. And so it's up to the audience to really see through them and see beyond them to the truth of the characters.

JANAE CUMMINGS: How much is the setting of Brighton Beach a character in the film?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: It is totally a major character in the film. And this is what I noticed having lived in New York and not being born in the US is that when you leave Manhattan and you explore the outer boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn, which have their own different ethnic neighborhoods and communities, they're very distinct and different from each other. It's very heterogeneous. Like in Brooklyn alone, there is Italian Americans. There's a Caribbean community. There's the Orthodox Jewish community that's different from the Hasidic Jewish community. And there's also the Russian Jewish. So I live in Crown Heights, which is a lot like the Williamsburg in Lena Dunham's “Girls,” you know, a lot of white hipsters. But when I take the train just half an hour down to Bainbridge, it feels like being with whisked off to a different country and to a different time period as well. And I wanted to show that kind of New York that feels like a secret or hidden New York that's not usually shown in films and that's actually made up of immigrant communities. And I was also very much influenced by the cinema of the American auteur James Gray who is Russian Jewish himself, and he set a few of his films in Brighton Beach, such as "Two Lovers" starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Recently, IU Cinema presented an early career retrospective of your work as part of the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker series, and that series has included everyone from Meryl Streep to Werner Herzog and Ava herself. What does it mean to you to be part of this company already after three films?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Oh, my God (laughter). It's - I'm just in awe and tremendously honored to be standing on the shoulders of giants. I'm very much starstruck with the names that are on there. I mean, Ava DuVernay is also among the distinguished filmmakers that they've invited, as well as Pedro Costa, Mira Nair. Yes, I'm just honored. There's not much I can say about it except thank you to Indiana University Cinema to Brittney Freisner for inviting me to be a Jorgensen Guest filmmaker.

JANAE CUMMINGS: When we think about all those names, are there any other types of films that you'd like to make that are perhaps inspired by some of those people?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah. I love, for instance, the minimalism of Pedro Costa's films. They remind me in a way of say Caravaggio in the interplay between the shadow and the light and how he sticks to the essentials in terms of art direction, cinematography and production designed to elicit the kinds of intense, powerful and ravishing emotions that he brings up in his films. And that's something that I would want to do in "Tropical Gothic," my next feature, in that it is set in the 16th century in the Philippines. And again, the prevailing style and approach in telling period pieces is to go big. Be lavish when it comes to the art direction and the sets, the costumes and the production design. But I want it to feel very intimate or almost voyeuristically so, so that even though the story is set in a different era, in a different culture, that doesn't keep us from really engaging with the story and with the characters in an intimate, vulnerable and genuine way.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Will this be another film where you play the lead?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: No (laughter). I feel like I do it every other film so - since I acted in "Lingua Franca." But I also don't necessarily feel like playing a 16th century native priestess at this point in my career. So I'll work with another actress to bring that character to life who I'm sure will more than do justice and will really do great.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is filmmaker Isabel Sandoval. She's speaking with Janae Cummings.

JANAE CUMMINGS: There have been people who have asked you about - hopefully I'm not oversimplifying - the difference between films by trans filmmakers and how they feel different from those by cis filmmakers. Is that accurate? Can you talk about that if so?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah. I think it's when it comes to films by trans filmmakers about transgender individuals. And I think when you're telling a story from a first person subjectivity or consciousness, that there's just a degree of authenticity and honesty and keen observation that's not going to be given justice to by a storyteller from a different community or with a different identity or consciousness. And I don't think that necessarily just limits itself to trans storytellers, but say being a woman filmmaker, a woman of color and an immigrant, of course, talent is also going to be a major factor in doing that. But especially now and this is part of why I did "Lingua Franca" the way that I did and that I both acted in it as well as really had control over the story is that - and hopefully and just lucky that it's been received very warmly - that there is merit to letting trans people tell their own stories. There's merit to having immigrant filmmakers tell stories about their own experiences.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You know, we've had one hundred years of filmmaking where one group of people is telling everyone else's stories. And so it is long since time that stories are done by the people who experience them.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah, just in the trans cinema in particular, an overwhelming majority of trans films are being made by cis directors that are about the gender transition process. That's it, you know, because that's the most sensationalized, fetishized facet of the trans experience. And "Lingua Franca" starts well after those trans films and her transition is very much in the past and behind her. And the film starts out really just immersing the audience in the world of Olivia as she's going through her daily rituals in a very naturalistic way.

JANAE CUMMINGS: We spoke a little bit earlier about you coming into your identity through the filmmaking process a bit, this being your first film after your transition. What are the differences I think maybe that you might see between your first two films "Senorita" and "Apparition" and the perspective you have with "Lingua Franca"?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: I think the most important thing that I learned after having made "Lingua Franca," and this is to paraphrase Maya Angelou, is that your audience might forget about the characters. They're going to forget the plot points, but they will never forget how you made them feel through your films. And with "Senorita" and "Apparition," because I was so influenced and inspired by the works of cinematic masters, I thought I understood what a good film looked and sounded like and what they were about. But with "Lingua Franca," I felt that I have come to a more mature understanding of what a good film is. And it's about more than narrative, it's really about the emotional experience for the audience and what you're trying to make them feel. And so the more unique, the more distinctive, the more singular and complex the emotion you're eliciting in your audience by the end of the film and even beyond that, the more powerful and resonant your film will be. It's really about how you're making your audience feel. Like when we look at the works of who I consider a contemporary auteurs these days, like Wes Anderson is - his films have a certain look and visual aesthetic. But then again, that's tied to making the audience feel a certain way. Wong Kar-wai as well. So it's not how convoluted the plot is or how - you know, what's the big reveal at the end but how powerful and distinct and honest the emotion that you're eliciting in the audience by the end of the film that matters most.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You talked a little bit about pitching and you're going to write the pilot for a TV show. How is that different from film? What is the process like? How do you approach that?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: It depends a lot on worldbuilding, really. And when you say world it's about the milieu - the time and the place and also a whole network of characters and how they interact with each other and these very different threads and subplots that branch out from the central theme that you're exploring with your series. And it's ultimately how to make sure that all these disparate elements and tangents eventually come together and cohere into a central theme. So it's really important to have a very clear idea of your vision and the big picture that you're telling with a series. And that's going to guide you as you branch off into individual stories and characters and subplots.

JANAE CUMMINGS: What else is on your plate? You talked about "Tropical Gothic." There was the show. Like, what other stories do you want to tell?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: I want to tell - and this is me also thinking about the kind of films that I want to act in. I want to play a vampire in 1940s Hollywood. Again, I want to subvert  genre and that I don't want it to be a horror film. But I want it to transcend that and eventually become as it nears its conclusion into a meditation on memory and time and unrequited romance.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Do you plan to continue acting or directing or you just kind of keep taking turns alternating?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: I'm going to play it by ear and, you know, listen to my gut. If I feel like - so I'm not really charting a rigid or fixed plan as to what I want to do. But I want to do what excites me at any given moment. And right now, I'm just very lucky that I have support for a TV project and a film project that I'm trying to get off the ground.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Can you tell us who the TV project is with? Is it a secret? Is it top secret information?



ISABEL SANDOVAL: Oh, it's - we're going to call it a crime drama involving nuns (laughter).

JANAE CUMMINGS: That's perfect. That's perfect.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: And there's secrets.

JANAE CUMMINGS: I hope to see that soon. I need more shows to binge.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yes (laughter).

JANAE CUMMINGS: The sooner the better for all of us, I think.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah. Hopefully when it comes out the pandemic is well behind us.

JANAE CUMMINGS: I'm curious. How has the pandemic affected how you promote and go about the business of distributing this film? I mean, it's on Netflix. Everyone can see it. But how has it changed for you as someone who's been on the festival circuit all this time?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: I actually feel like "Lingua Franca" is the kind of film that thrives on streaming and not in a regular theatrical distribution strategy because it's the kind of film that grows on you and gets more awareness through word of mouth. It takes a few days to marinate for people to truly get the film. It's not the kind of film or at least in my experience that you come out of the theater and like, wow. Sometimes I - because of the ending is rather ambiguous, I want people - I want the film to haunt and linger and stay in people's minds. And that's how it's gotten word of mouth that people are watching it in the solitude and the quiet and the privacy of their own homes where they can think about Olivia and the themes of the film and start talking about it to friends or online. And if it came out in the theaters and if it didn't do well in the first week, it would just get pulled out.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Well, it's an intimate film that feels like it needs an intimate setting. So I think that makes sense. It's not the same experience I think on the big screen. I see exactly what you're saying. And it's one where, you know, when the credits were rolling, I truly sat on my couch just thinking about it. I didn't do anything else. I was just kind of contemplating and going back through the plot and the outcome, which I was one of those where I wanted a tidy, happy ending, of course. But as time went by, I was like, this is exactly right. This is exactly how it should have concluded.

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah. And I also wanted to pull back from this individual story of a woman into the bigger fabric and narrative about undocumented immigrants and trans women whose lives and experiences and futures remains uncertain, given the milieu that the story is setting.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Is that a topic you'll come back to do you think?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Um…I don't know yet.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is filmmaker Isabel Sandoval. She's speaking with Janae Cummings.

JANAE CUMMINGS: I want to go back to "Senorita." This is your first film, and I really want to understand your motivation for actually making a film. It is one thing to have a story in your head and something you kind of want to see play out, but you went and made a movie which you had not done before, to my knowledge. Can you talk about that a bit?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah. It's just how artists feel. They want to express themselves like painters paint. For me, it's a lot more complicated because filmmaking is not a solitary act of artistic creation. I'm essentially a conductor of a musical orchestra and also kind of a manager in that I have the responsibility for setting the morale of the crew at a certain level. But I did it because I couldn't imagine not doing it. I felt compelled and just drawn to telling my story through the cinematic medium. And it's something that I wake up in the morning thinking about and going to bed dreaming about at night, how to tell a story through the medium of cinema. And it's not something that we choose, I feel. It chooses us (laughter). I'm just lucky that despite not having a formal education in filmmaking, I have some talent (laughter). And that's being recognized as well by gatekeepers like film festivals and critics. Yeah, but I can't imagine expressing myself any other way creatively. I'm thinking of writing a novel. And in fact, I've started writing one. But I don't feel nearly as comfortable and commanding and confident as I do on set or editing a film.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Is that novel something that could maybe eventually transition into film?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: If it becomes a film, it's going to be a very, very challenging adaptation because it's such an interior novel. And again, it's very much in the head of the main character (laughter). And that's why I thought of writing a novel about it instead of making a film because it's really about her memories and her subjectivity that's not easily translatable to a cinematic piece, to the cinematic medium.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Could you tell us a little more about who she is and the story?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: About 20 years ago, well before he was a figure - a national figure in Philippine politics, he was a mayor of a southern city in the Philippines called Davao. And that's where he started these vigilante groups. And one of them was - they were called death squads. And so my character is about one teenager who was part of that plan - so that's why back then - who is now an undocumented immigrant living in the US who is also transitioning with - she sort of put that behind her and is trying to braid that deep down in her subconscious. But with Duterte ascending, rising to power and becoming president, plus Trump here in the US, her past has come back to haunt her. So, again, it's a secret. Her past as one of the vigilantes is a secret that she's been trying to hide and keep from people, but now she has to grapple with it and confront it.

JANAE CUMMINGS: ...And is also transitioning.


JANAE CUMMINGS: So would this be a transition story or would we, in the novel, do we encounter her post transition or kind of like thinking back to this period?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: It's post transition, really. But now it's also about her being a part of the powerless and invisible minority, being an undocumented immigrant here, which is in stark contrast to the feeling of crazy power that she used to feel as a teenager back in the Philippines being a vigilante for a morally dubious mayor who is now the president in our country.

JANAE CUMMINGS: What spoke to you specifically about that period of time? Like, why focus on kind of Duterte's reign of terror and rise to power?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: I think for me like the settings of my films time wise are they almost always take place in pivotal moments, the beginning of something, a beginning of a train of thought or a political paradigm mindset. Like "Apparition," my second feature it's set in 1971, literally less than a year before the declaration of martial law in the Philippines by then-president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos. And fast forward to 15 years later in 1986, we see during the people power revolution that was responsible for Marcos's ouster, it was actually monastic nuns that led the protests in the streets. They marched in the streets and offered flowers to the soldiers, braved the military tanks. And I wanted to come up with a fictional story about the political awakening of these nuns because the popular imagery and conception of nuns in the Philippines is that they're very docile and subservient. They toe the line with a Catholic church, but in 1986 we see these activist, militant nuns. And so I wanted to come up with a story of how they went from point A to point B in their political life. And with this new novel being set during that formative period, so to speak, it's about how this young person was slowly transforming into a monster by becoming a vigilante and now is coming to terms and is seeking penance for that in her present life in her present circumstances.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You could get a horror film out of this in some capacity, some kind of...

ISABEL SANDOVAL: Yeah, and that's the thing. I want it to be ultimately quite tender and compassionate and moving. Despite its seemingly sensationalistic premise, I want it to feel it actually was something that people are not going to expect to feel a certain way based on how it reads on paper.


AARON CAIN: Isabel Sandoval, filmmaker, actor and writer. Sandoval's film, "Lingua Franca," was recently showcased at Indiana University Cinema's Jorgensen Guest filmmaker series. She's been speaking with Janae Cummings. For more information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, go to


Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Jillian Burley. The studio engineer is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us again next week for another edition of Profiles.

Isabel Sandoval

Isabel Sandoval (Photo Courtesy of Clemence Poles)

Isabel Sandoval is a filmmaker who grew up in the Philippines and later moved to New York City, and her unique experiences are expertly expressed through her medium of choice. She has made three feature films to date, including Senorita, Apparition and Lingua Franca.

Her work has premiered at several distinguished festivals, including Stockholm, Vancouver and AFI fest.

Isabel Sandoval’s most recent film, Lingua Franca, follows the story of a transgender immigrant, Olivia, living in Brighton Beach who has not yet obtained her green card. Her journey is further complicated when a cisgender man enters her life romantically, and Olivia wrestles with the idea of sharing her status as trans, and illegal.

Lingua Franca was recently curated by Indiana University Cinema’s Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker series.

Isabel Sandoval spoke over video conferencing with Janae Cummings.

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