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The Gentle Hand of Isabel Sandoval’s Filmmaking
by Annie Wojnarowski

In a world with multiple headlines a day, there are more than enough stories for filmmakers to translate onto the screen. The hard part is making it immediate, tasteful, and most of all, not obvious. It takes a rare skill to craft something so subtle that it pulls the rug from under you without you even noticing you were ever standing on one. Films like Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour and Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together have done this, distilling world issues into the hearts and conversations of everyday people trying to get by. Now, the torch has been handed to Isabel Sandoval, a filmmaker keeping the cinematic reality of consciousness alive.

Lingua Franca, Sandoval’s third feature film, made history at the 2019 Venice Film Festival by being the first film screened that was directed and acted by an openly trans person. Its success doubled when it was subsequently picked up by Ava Duvernay’s distribution company, ARRAY. However, Sandoval’s accolades don’t even begin to dictate this auteur’s greater talent and passion for the art. Lingua Franca, as well as her first feature, Señorita (2011), showcases the distinct voice that Sandoval holds. Stories, topics, and allusions not only of the Filipina American experience, but of the trans-Filipina experience have seldom been distributed through mainstream media. It’s one thing for these stories to be told, but it’s another to be created by someone who has lived the experience and has the full creative control to express it. 

The Filipina filmmaker—who directed, wrote, edited, and acted in Lingua Franca—knows that someone’s reality is not always universal. Speaking with Deadline, Sandoval says that her characters “do not live in a vacuum. They live in a very particular socio-political setting and milieu in terms of a time and place….I feel like that situates my characters in a very concrete reality.” Sandoval’s technique can be compared to one of a handmade toymaker: She takes her time, painting her characters’ faces, emotions, experiences, hopes, and dreams. Her films are speckled with so much originality that when one watches them, they see where Sandoval has stitched in each piece of deeply-felt fondness and distinct care.

In Señorita, Donna, played by Sandoval, has a scene where she puts on pageant crowns in front of her vanity. There’s a beautifully youthful twinkle in her eyes, one that seems to have existed since she was a young girl; a young dreamer. Sandoval gives Donna moments to express joy, anger, and sexual satisfaction, even in the midst of surrounding tensions. Sandoval’s filmmaking rejects the consequences of trans individuals who are on screen just to be hurt. She sees right past the Hollywood treatment of punishing trans existence just to demonstrate a moral tale. So then, what do we gain when we bring specificity and experience to the trans characters we depict in film? With Sandoval at the helm of her own projects, transness is shown as something other than fatalistic. More than that, it’s shown with affection, distinction, and maybe most importantly, the absence of a monolith. 

Speaking with IndieWire, Sandoval notes that instead of showing her characters — specifically Lingua Franca’s Olivia — as solely their identities, “we see her just as a person, we see that sensuality and conflict. She’s not perfect; she’s a character who’s flawed, and she’s complicated. She’s human and I think ultimately that’s what makes her relatable as a character.” Sandoval makes it clear that bottling a character down to one identity does nothing but dilute the nuance of their being. Trans individuals’ lives don’t always need to be depicted with despair, pain, and hardship because they happen to not be cisgender. Although Sandoval far from denies that as part of their reality, the characters she creates are formed beyond the surface level identity that others may see them as. Talking with the podcast, Cinemanic Pursuit at AFI Fest, Sandoval expanded upon this idea: “I come up with stories and narratives about characters that on the surface seem very foreign and from my own personal experience because I want to broaden my horizons as an artist and a filmmaker.”

Señorita and Lingua Franca are the products of an auteur doing what they do best: producing a vision that immediately notifies the audience whose work they are viewing. “I wanted [Lingua Franca] to showcase what I can do as a director, and to show that I have a distinct voice and sensibility and hopefully producers in Hollywood will notice that.” Isabel Sandoval may only be on her third feature, but she is already finding herself as a creative force to be reckoned with.