Immigration and Transgender Issues Fuel Isabel Sandoval’s Drama ‘Lingua Franca’

The struggles of an undocumented immigrant who is also a trans woman in the Brighton Beach area of New York are given a subtle, delicate and ultimately powerful treatment in “Lingua Franca,” by filmmaker Isabel Sandoval.

Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing will virtually debut the film in select theaters and on Netflix Aug. 26. 

Sandoval, who’s currently in North Carolina writing her next feature, made history last year when she became the first trans woman with a film in the Venice Film Festival.

She said although it was “nerve-wracking” being chosen by one of the most important A-list festivals in the world, it was also a vindication, “because I got pushback from investors.

The Venice selection was a true validation [of] my vision as a storyteller.”

Sandoval wrote, directed and starred in the film as Olivia, an undocumented trans woman working as a live-in caregiver to Olga (Lynn Cohen), who suffers from dementia. Their routine is interrupted when Olga’s grandson Alex moves in after a stint in rehab, and Alex and Olivia pursue their attraction, but the spectre of ICE and the fear of not being accepted if she’s outed rise to the surface as the constant thrum of news reports of the Trump administration cracking down on immigrants plays in the background. 

Sandoval was interested in creating a unique New York story. “The DP, Isaac Banks, and I talked about this idea of a New York drama,” she said, adding that she wanted to make it gritty. The film is evocative of 1970s urban dramas, but yet has a timeless look. “Visually sparse and delicate but also lyrical and sensual,” she said. “Once of my influences was Wong Kar-wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love.’ Also Bergman. I like austere cinema.” 

As for the issues she packs into the film, “I perceive and write my characters as not living in a vacuum. I feel the absence of privilege. And that really informs my films. That complexity and that layer that finds its way into how these characters live.” 

In setting the film in Brighton Beach, Sandoval wanted to draw the parallel between Olga, the Russian immigrant, and Olivia, from the Philippines. “New York City is a melting pot,” she said, and Brighton Beach feels like a place stuck in a different period, which she was aiming for. 

“Production designer Clint Ramos really did a great job at evoking the milieu and spirit of the area. It’s seen better days but still feels romantic.”

Although the film tackles big issues, it doesn’t scream. 

“It’s just reflective of the kind of person I am,” Sandoval said. “In the film, what’s important is what’s left unsaid. The spaces carry more emotional weight between the characters.”

She said she wants to “make films that linger; let the themes and emotions marinate. It’s not filmmaking with a megaphone or bullhorn. I set up limitations and tried to defy them.”

She also wants to invite audiences to “look beyond the markers of Olivia. I asked the audience to put themselves in her shoes.”

What about having Duvernay on board? 

“I was very, very thrilled and honored to work with Ava and Array,” adding that Array understood what she wanted to accomplish with the film and its marketing campaign. “It’s easy for a filmmaker like me to be put in a box. I really wanted to transcend those labels.

Ava acknowledges that.” 

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