Isabel Sandoval Explores the Power of the Unsaid in ‘Lingua Franca’

Presented by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing, Lingua Franca, Isabel Sandoval’s poignant tale about a trans immigrant in New York, made cinematic history when it became the first film produced, written, directed, edited by and starring a trans woman of color to compete at the Venice International Film Festival last year.

Lingua Franca bows in select theaters in the U.S. and on Netflix on Aug. 26.

A hit in France, Cahiers du Cinema hailed the film’s blend of political impulses with true romanticism as “rare in contemporary cinema.”

Lingua Franca, which had its world premiere at the festival’s Venice Days sidebar, is Sandoval’s third film but her first to shoot in the U.S.. She made her first two films, Señorita and Apparition, in her home country, the Philippines.

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Inspired by the personal experiences of her fellow immigrants in New York, Lingua Franca pivots on an undocumented trans woman, played by Sandoval, who cares for an elderly Russian lady Olga (Lynn Cohen) as she struggles to secure a green card and sends money home. An unexpected romance with Olga’s wayward grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) compels her to face the realities of her identity, her civil rights and her immigration status.

In Lingua Franca, Sandoval explores the power of the unsaid. “Lingua Franca means bridge language, which between immigrants of different countries would most likely be English,” said Sandoval. “In the film’s case, what’s left unsaid becomes the lingua franca.”

“The quietest moments in my films tend to be the most powerful,” she mused, pointing to a signature theme in her films: “quiet, almost dialogueless scenes between two characters that are anchored in dramatic tension.”

Unsurprisingly, her oeuvre has been about the marginalized and the disempowered, more often than not in political settings.

Sandoval’s debut feature, Senorita, revolves around a trans woman, played by herself, who gets drawn into politics. Apparition is set in a convent just as then President Ferdinand Marcos begins to crack down on the opposition and declares martial law. As the outside world threatens their peace, the film reflects on the journey of the nuns in the Philippines who were transformed from their docile and subservient stance to becoming frontline leaders in the country’s people power revolution that toppled Marcos.

Sandoval ventures into a new genre in her next film, Tropical Gothic, which she hopes to shoot next year in the Philippines. Set in 16th century Philippines after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, Tropical Gothic turns on the haunting of a Spanish colonizer by a native priestess. “It’s a vampire story without vampires,” she quipped.