Last year, Isabel Sandoval became the first trans woman of colour to screen in competition at the Venice International Film Festival. She went on to get her film, Lingua Franca, picked up by Ava Duvernay’s Array company, and she’ll continue to blaze a trail on Netflix later this month.
When Lingua Franca finally screens here at the digital version of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, in its Centrepiece Gala, Sandoval marks a milestone as the event’s first trans woman to have written, directed, and starred in her own movie.
But what may be most groundbreaking about Lingua Franca is that it focuses on far more than just the trans experience, touching on immigration woes and an increasingly xenophobic U.S.
“I think this kind of complex storytelling with trans films is so rare,” remarks Vancouver Queer Film Festival artistic director Anoushka Ratnarajah. “And while that character’s identity and being trans is part of the story, it’s not the most important part of the story. She gets to have other experiences.”
The film follows an undocumented Filipina trans woman named Olivia (Sandoval). She works as a live-in caregiver for Olga (the late Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian woman in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, wiring money back home to her family in the Philippines while desperately trying to secure a green card.
At first she’s willing to pay a stranger to marry her to ensure her immigration, but then she meets and falls for Olga’s adult grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), who’s fresh out of rehab.
Olivia has a quiet power in the film as she works through the stress of trying to both find love and secure a green card in a country where the anti-immigrant rhetoric and ICE raids are almost as fierce as its transphobia.
Reached in the Carolinas, where she’s hiding out from the COVID storm in her home city of New York, the self-taught Sandoval relishes the way her new film has defied expectations.
“I think Lingua Franca is a different film in that, although it touches on typical subjects like immigration and the trans experience, it can’t be reduced to a message movie,” she tells the Straight. “Because of that, it’s divisive, with some audience members or critics who expect it to be miserable, with indignity upon indignity put on the trans woman. I like to think of it as a story of her agency.”
Lingua Franca is Sandoval’s third film; her last, 2012’s Apparition, focused on Filipina nuns during the Marcos regime. Though socio-political undercurrents run through all her work, her movies may be most memorable for their delicate, understated character studies.
“My films reflect who I am as a person. I tend to be laid-back—that’s my own approach and my style as a filmmaker,” Sandoval says. “There’s dialogue but also silences and these pauses for what the characters hold from each other.
"They reveal as much truth as what they say to each other. That’s why people think of my films as interior dramas. I want my films to invite people to be closer and pay more attention to the characters…. Filmmaking is an act of empathetic imagination.”
Lingua Franca is just one in a strong roster of programming dedicated to BIPOC voices within the LGBTQ community at this year’s fest. Look to the event’s opener, Pier Kids, about the displaced queer and trans youth of colour who congregate at Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street Pier.
Queer Black filmmaker Elegance Barton makes an appearance at a Q&A with Ratnarajah; like Sandoval, he knows his subject intimately, as a former homeless gay teen who used to hang out at the pier. Elsewhere, look for Goodbye Mother, which follows a man named Van’s return to Vietnam with his boyfriend, Ian, under the guise of friendship.
“Because I’m a woman of colour and queer, when I grew up there weren’t a lot of stories that reflected my own life or goals or imaginings,” says Ratnarajah. “I really try to program from that perspective and look for the films missing from the queer canon.”
And while that diverse programming feels like it reflects this moment of activism, there’s another way to look at it.
“The community I intersect with have always been talking about these things,” observes Ratnarajah. “If it feels timely, I think it’s because the awareness has become a little more there.”