If you weren’t a filmmaker what would you be? This is the last question I ask Isabel Sandoval. Truth be told, it’s not exactly the most groundbreaking question one could pose to one of the most exciting directors on the scene right now, but the Filipina filmmaker’s response takes something standard and ties it up in a way that perfectly reflects the ninety minutes of conversation between us:
“…I think I would be a nun who lives a double life.”
It’s an answer she offers with a self-referential smile—after all, the Lingua Franca director, like almost 80% of the Filipino population, grew up Catholic. And, like many who were raised adhering to the strict boundaries of organised religion only to find themselves queer and, in Isabel’s case, trans, she has had to make peace with the person she was expected to be, and the person she’s always been. As of now, the woman sitting in front of me appears lifetimes removed from an identity crisis. Composed, confident, and totally at ease, she’s not calling from a Catholic monastery, but, instead, a regular paint-by-numbers BnB, her base of choice while transitioning from her Brooklyn apartment to her new home in Philadelphia.
As we begin, Isabel’s dog slinks into frame, nestling her head comfortably by the filmmaker’s thigh. Her name is ‘Akira’. “After the anime?” I suggest impulsively, to which she laughs like she’s suffered through this exchange a thousand times, and corrects me: “Or…Kurosawa.” I feel slightly sheepish, but still, the small-talk early into our conversation hints at just how deep Sandoval’s love for film runs through her bloodstream. Despite never having a “formal” education in film, talking to Isabel is as much a masterclass in film history and technique than you could ever hope to find in a lecture hall. Throughout our conversation she cites everyone from the Coen Brothers to South-Korean master Lee Chang-dong, recent Sight & Sound list-topper Chantal Akerman to legendary Filipino auteur Mike de Leon. But it’s Akerman’s films that hold a special relevance for Isabel. “Watching Jeanne Dielman was revolutionary for me.” She explains. “Because it was really the first kind of film where I saw this female character just sitting down, thinking at a table, doing chores, performing her daily rituals, and this young filmmaker [Akerman] who had the audacity, the imagination, to assert that this was cinema.”
Then wrestling with her identity as a trans woman, Sandoval found Akerman’s depiction of the life of a lonely housewife a radical symbol of the possibilities of womanhood—what being a woman could mean to her. Back in the Philippines, she tells me, the portrait of transness in pop culture and the media was one of hyper-femininity and flamboyance; trans woman who aspired to be Barbie or Kardashian types. There’s nothing wrong with that, she notes, but it wasn’t the type of woman she identified with. Isabel, in her own words, was reserved, introverted, and a little geeky. “It didn’t occur to me, seeing how it was being portrayed, that I could be trans,” she says, crediting films like Klute, Jeanne Dielman and News From Home for showing her that transitioning could mean becoming a more realised version of herself. “It made me realise through filmmaking that I could be a woman, and express my femininity in my own idiosyncratic, unique way. I did not have to conform or abide by a very popular or conventional type of femininity. I was able to translate that experience of watching this film into my own life in that I didn’t have to be big or bold or loud or ostentatious about being a woman—I can just be a woman in my own quiet, intimate, and maybe strange type of way. There’s a connection between the art from the master auteurs that has really made an indelible impression on me…it has allowed me to perceive myself in ways that I could not have imagined just by experiencing life outside of cinema.”
It wasn’t until beginning production on her debut feature that Sandoval, still questioning her gender identity, would see her most life-changing affirmation come through her own lens rather than that of the great filmmakers who preceded her. Señorita (2011), an ultra low-budget pulpy noir melodrama best described as a cross between Fassbinder and Almadovar, follows a sex worker who moves from Manila to the relative quiet of her hometown to start a new life, which is upended when she gets entangled in a corrupt local election. Struck by the radicalism of Jane Fonda in Klute, Isabel decided not only to direct (and write, and edit) the film, but to star as its trans protagonist. She describes the character to me as a dual role, “a double life, kind of like the opposite ends of the Madonna-Whore type of persona” that in her conception would unconsciously reflect Sandoval’s own identity crisis/catharsis. Though not intending to test the waters of whether or not she was trans, shooting Señorita became both a deliberate act of filmmaking and subliminal act of self-therapy. “It was while acting in Señorita and also directing it, and inhabiting this fictional character, that I came to a realisation about the truth about myself and about who I was. I didn’t tell anyone that I realised I was trans, but after I made Apparition a year later that’s when I started transitioning.”
From there it was off to the races. Señorita was released to acclaim on the indie circuit, priming Sandoval as an exciting new force in filmmaking and the one-to-watch. She soon released Apparition (2012), another Phillipines-set political drama, this time centering on a group of nuns living in a remote convent during the presidency of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, before starting work on her breakthrough, Lingua Franca. Having transitioned into a truer, fully realised version of her own person, Sandoval saw an opportunity with Lingua Franca to begin to carve out an identity as a fully-fledged auteur as well as play with audience expectations of her as both a Filipino filmmaker and a trans woman.
Traditionally, the cinema of the Philippines is steeped in social neorealism, and when I ask Isabel to pick a few films that best express what Filipino film means to her, she instinctively plucks three from 1982: Kisapmata by Mike de Leon, Oro, Plata, Mata by Peque Gallaga, and The Affair by Ishmael Bernal—all deeply political films that by no coincidence came out during the final year of Martial Law. “Some of the most powerful works of art tend to be made in periods that are oppressive for artists and filmmakers” she muses. In that regard, Lingua Franca knowingly follows in the footsteps of the great Filipino auteurs, harnessing that signature back-against-the-wall energy and aiming it in the direction of Trump-era America.“I could not have made that if everything was peachy clean and happy. I made that when I was feeling a lot of paranoia and insanity about life in the United States.”
Starring Sandoval herself as undocumented trans Filipino caregiver Olivia, the film encapsulates all the prejudice and paranoia of being an immigrant in Trump’s America while being just as careful not to bang her audience over the head with social commentary. “I often joke to people that I’m a gold star minority,” Isabel smiles. “A trans woman of colour-immigrant…so I don’t feel like I have to make a film that’s preachy to get my point across, the fact that I’m making the film that I made, given its themes, is political enough.”
It’s for that reason that even the most apolitical act in Lingua Franca is ultimately radical in its own, quiet way…where even a moment of romance or eroticism can feel revolutionary at its core. While there are hints of sensuality in her earlier films, they seem tainted — shrouded in shame and guilt that Isabel tells me was largely a product of her Catholic upbringing. She says that an important aspect of her transition was cutting the umbilical cord that connected her to those tired values. “I had a very ambivalent relationship with sexuality, because Catholics are taught that sex outside of marriage or to desire sexually is sinful and prohibited outside of the context of marriage, and also especially just being queer. When I decided to transition, I decided to leave behind these notions that I grew up with — to stop blaming or beating myself up as doing something sinful. It was when I finally transitioned to the body of the person that I felt I always was, that sense of exhilaration, that sense of freedom, suffused and showed up in my work. Lingua Franca is the first feature of mine where the sex scenes don’t necessarily involve someone feeling bad or feeling regretful after manifesting that desire.”
There’s no one better equipped to execute this than Sandoval, who is somewhat of an expert on sensuality in film—to the point where she’s been hailed by her twitter-base, tongue firmly in cheek, as the ‘Queen of Sensual Cinema’. In an essay for social media app Letterboxd, she likens the sub-genre to being taken to the edge of pleasure – more concerned with the whispers of desire than the act of fulfilling it (though films that do both can still qualify). It’s all about the tease. “Sex sells?”, she writes, “that’s old-hat. I say it’s desire, and the more repressed, taboo, unfulfilled that desire is, the more consuming it is, and the more it plays like gangbusters.” She touts Vertigo, Lost In Translation, and, of course, Lingua Franca, as examples of Sensual Cinema, among many others, though the shining example of its kind must be Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, a movie that is all repressed desire and zero catharsis. The history of cinema is bursting with lovemaking, but the moments that really keep our chests tight are located before lips meet; that savour the raw, untethered emotions bouncing off the walls like atoms—in wandering eyes, deep breaths, sultry body language and sharp-tongues.
Shangri-La, a short film by and starring Sandoval for Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series, and a spiritual progression of Lingua Franca, is a film that is almost cosmic in its embrace of sensuality. It begins inside a confessional, Sandoval’s protagonist painting a portrait of her sexual desire to her lover listening tenderly on the other side of the cabinet, once again referencing a taboo-shattering chemical reaction of sexuality and catholicism that Isabel herself has had to reckon with. As the film progresses, her protagonist is liberated spiritually for acknowledging her own sexuality. “In western cinema where we see characters that are minorities, who are “other’d, they tend to be exhibited as objects,” Isabel says, thoughtfully. “Things are happening to them. The act of desiring, to lust over someone or for something, implies a sense of agency. That’s a very subtle assertion of selfhood: the suggestion of agency. That’s what makes the act of expressing sexual desire by someone like Olivia [Lingua Franca] truly powerful. Because I’ve come to embrace myself as a person and that sensuality and sexuality is part of that, my characters also arrive at that sexual and spiritual epiphany.”
The more I talk with Isabel, the more I see that recurring theme of identity weaving in and out of her creative and personal DNA; through cinephilia, filmmaking, and womanhood, each thread influencing and nurturing the other, and doing so harmoniously. In 2021, she starred in Andrew Ondrejcak’s short film The Actress, a voyage into the heart of film history and, in Isabel’s own words, “a dazzling stroke of cinematic graffiti.” In the film, Sandoval is possessed by the spirits of the great screen icons, or rather, she chooses to possess them, re-contextualising them through a queer lens. “I felt like a true rebel in a way…infiltrating this sacred canon of world and American cinema by taking on these iconic roles that not a lot of people would imagine someone like me taking on. I was especially excited by A Clockwork Orange for instance…crossing that gender divide to play this anarchist character. Now that I’m associated with films with the themes and sensibilities of Lingua Franca, I kind of want to shake that off and do something that people won’t expect me to do.” Among the iconic performances she takes on include Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk’s immortal All That Heaven Allows, Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Jane Fonda in Roger Vadim’s sci-fi cult classic Barbarella, and Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. As she transforms into these iconic characters, she talks of being, belonging, becoming, reinvention, taking back what is hers, taking what now she wants. She announces ethereally, “I was once your fantasy, but now I’m my fantasy.”
When I ask Isabel to tell me more about her upcoming fourth feature Tropical Gothic, her eyes light up and she immediately begins rattling off, charmingly, like listening to a friend talk about that thing that means the world to them. By the time she’s finished explaining her vision for the movie, I can see why she’s so excited, and can barely wait for the finished product myself. Taking place during the early years of the Spanish colonial regime in the Philippines, the film follows a Filipino priestess who pretends to be possessed by the spirit of her Spanish master’s dead wife in order to psychologically manipulate him into giving her back the land he stole from her. The way it sounds, if Lingua Franca was Sandoval coming into her own, Tropical Gothic is her establishing herself as a master of her craft. “In a way Lingua Franca was a thematic compromise, as a minority filmmaker in America there is an expectation and a pressure to perform your identity—to perform your transness, or perform that you’re a filipino immigrant…but Tropical Gothic is exciting, new territory for me and for Filipino cinema, in that its very expressively and pointedly not anchored in social neo-realism.”
Isabel’s vision for the film is airtight and ambitious, with the big focus being on establishing a visual identity partly inspired by the emotional expressionism of Jack Cardiff’s work on Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, the striking closeups of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Verela, and the bold use of colour and shadow by the likes of Rembrandt or Carvaggio. But make no mistake, Tropical Gothic will be very much Sandoval’s own, a film that she hopes will establish a new era of Fillipino cinema and auteurism. “That’s why I love the title Tropical Gothic, [i see it] as a movement for me and for a new generation of Filipino filmmakers. I want to craft a visual aesthetic that’s going to really be identified with me…I want people to see a frame of Tropical Gothic and say that it’s an Isabel Sandoval film.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Isabel references a quote by Jean Cocteau: he said that filmmakers make the same movie again and again during the course of their career—the form changes, while the obsessions remain the same. Ozu said something similar, likening himself to an artist who keeps painting the same rose. Ruminating on the premise of Tropical Gothic and the Filipino priestess who we’ll see taking her land back from her Spanish colonisers, I scribble a mental note to myself; an obsession that this director seems to keep returning to. Isabel replies, as if she had read my mind. “I’ve always been drawn to women with secrets, women who lead double lives” she says, before adding, “maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces.”