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A film still of a woman with dark hair sitting on the floor in a living room. She is looking at another person, whose partial profile can be seen on the right side of the frame.

Issue 002 Spring 2021 Profiles

Front and Center

The Bold, Intimate Gaze of Isabel Sandoval

by Luce Capco Lincoln

Isabel Sandoval as Olivia in Lingua Franca (2019). Film still courtesy of ARRAY.

“Three centuries in a Catholic convent and fifty years in Hollywood.”1

It doesn’t escape me that Isabel Sandoval’s response to the question of what motivates her filmmaking is layered with symbols from both of these histories of the Philippines. When Sandoval was four, her mother took her to see her first movie. The film was a slapstick Filipino comedy popular in the 1980s, starring the comedian Dolphy and his son Vandolph. Cinerama, the huge theater where it was screened, is a relic of the post-war American influence, located on Cebu City’s Colon Street, a thoroughfare built by Spanish colonizers in the 1500s. Even with this colonial history, Sandoval admits that she was mesmerized by the giant images on the screen. As the stories came to life, they planted the seeds of her lifelong passion.

When Sandoval starts talking about the process of filmmaking, she lights up, spouting off encyclopedic knowledge of work that inspires her. She often references films across all genres, from contemporary blockbusters to international film classics. It’s obvious that her dream is to be remembered like the directors she loves: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Yasujirō Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa. They wield a mastery of narrative storytelling and imagery to bring audiences, as Sandoval puts it, to a “specific emotional destination.” But what seems to be Sandoval’s true intent is to create a vehicle that allows viewers, especially trans women of color, to see their truths and realities affirmed.

Sandoval started making films long before the 2019 Venice Film Festival, where she became the first trans director to premiere a feature film. She made her first feature, Señorita (2011), on a shoestring budget in the Philippines, which was then followed by her second feature, Apparition (2012). Both films received notable attention from international festivals, but it’s her most recent feature, Lingua Franca (2019), that is getting her noticed by the US and international film industries. The film tells the story of Olivia, an undocumented trans Filipina woman who is employed as a domestic worker for a Russian immigrant named Olga. Olivia falls into a romance with Alex, Olga’s grandson, while grappling with her fear of being detained and deported by the anti-immigrant Trump administration.

When Sandoval starts talking about the process of filmmaking she lights up, spouting off encyclopedic knowledge of work that inspires her. 

Last summer, Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, ARRAY, picked up the film for theatrical release and streaming on Netflix. When I ask Sandoval about the significance of making a film based in the US instead of the Philippines, she emphasizes that it gave her the freedom to make a “lyrical, sensual, delicate drama” that was a testament to her uncompromising storytelling. Because there is a market in the US for arthouse films, it was more possible and financially sustainable for Sandoval to execute her creative vision. That meant Sandoval could choose not to pander to a broader cisgender audience. This approach, she says, allowed the film to get noticed: “In my experience with Lingua Franca and the ‘risky’ and potentially alienating creative choices that I made, those idiosyncratic choices are what actually made the film stand out as being an original and singular work of art.”

Indeed, Sandoval’s signature filmic style comes to life in Lingua Franca. The narrative is intentionally sparse in dialogue, and Sandoval finds her aesthetic voice through ambitious cinematography. Long takes track Alex’s movement through the slaughterhouse where he works. When Olivia and Alex drive home after witnessing ICE agents arresting Filipino workers, Sandoval employs a shallow depth of field and close-ups to focus on their faces and emotions; they are lit by Brooklyn’s streetlights. The formal elements and visually melodic scenes combine in a series of small but poignant emotional events: the intimacy between lovers, the fear of incarceration that comes with being undocumented, and the awkward silences between two people who have different access to power, privilege, and ease in the US.

A behind-the-scenes photo of a production set. The images of three production members operating a camera can be seen reflected in a several mirrors while another person sits on a bed, taking the photo.
Lingua Franca (2019) behind the scenes. Production shot courtesy of Isabel Sandoval.

Sandoval had a public conversation with DuVernay, moderated by Penny Martin, at the February 2021 premiere of her short Shangri-La, a film commissioned by the fashion house Miu Miu for their Women’s Tales series. Sandoval acknowledged that it was DuVernay who convinced her that she could claim the title of auteur. DuVernay pointed out that the hesitancy on the part of women filmmakers to claim this title is often structural: “The terrain of that word seems to be climbed by men. A woman who is writing, producing, directing, editing, and even starring in her work and designed every aspect of the film process truly can take the mantle of auteurship.”2 There is no doubt that the filmic style and the themes that Sandoval establishes in Lingua Franca are the foundation of what we will see from her in the future, including her forthcoming feature, Tropical Gothic. Talking with Martin and DuVernay, she revealed what is at the heart of her work: “Cinema in general privileges the male gaze, when it comes to sexual desire, and I rarely see the female gaze—let alone the trans female gaze—depicted on-screen,” and more importantly, “without any guilt or shame.”

The trans female gaze is front and center in Lingua Franca. This is perhaps clearest in the beginning of the film, when Olivia and Alex are still new to each other. As Alex reads a love letter that his grandfather wrote, the camera moves closer to him, eventually lingering on a close-up of his lips. Triggered by these words, Olivia starts to have a sexual fantasy that the camera captures. Alex’s hands, followed by the camera, begin to navigate Olivia’s body. The voice-over then shifts to Olivia reading, but in her first language, Visayan. The sequence closes, with Olivia fully in control of both her desire and pleasure. As a trans director, Sandoval is making a fierce statement that we are not objectifying Olivia in this scene. She is drawing a sharp contrast between how we have been conditioned to perceive undocumented trans women and how we should perceive them: as makers of their own reality, powerful and fully in charge of their agency. At the end of the scene, Olivia, played by Sandoval, looks directly back at the camera, delivering this message as she demonstrates exactly what a trans female gaze looks like.

Cinema in general privileges the male gaze, when it comes to sexual desire, and I rarely see the female gaze—let alone the trans female gaze—depicted on-screen without any guilt or shame.

In Shangri-la, she continues this work with a powerful combination of beautiful visuals and narrative risks that bring to the forefront the trans Filipina experience. As in Lingua Franca, Sandoval writes, edits, directs, and stars in the film. However, unlike with Lingua Franca, she has created a narrative about living as a woman of trans experience without feeling the need to explain it to the audience. Sandoval plays a Filipina farmworker during the Great Depression in California who falls in love with a white farmhand, Samuel (Matthew Fifer).

Isabel Sandoval as “Olivia” in Lingua Franca looks off to the left of the screen, standing in front of what appears to be a bathroom mirror.
Isabel Sandoval as “Olivia” in Lingua Franca. Film still courtesy of ARRAY.

The film begins with a shot hovering above, first of a man surrounded by darkness and then of a woman who lies on top of him. They are superimposed—a layered portrait of one. The next shot cuts to a confessional box, where we hear a detailed account of the main character’s desires for her lover. The film draws us in with close-ups of the characters in the church, and then halfway through the fantasy, the story leaves the interior space. The cinematography opens up to exterior wide shots of the characters watching the fireworks on the shore. Meanwhile, voiceover describes how the protagonist finds her power in her dreams. All of sudden, she time-travels, forwards and backwards chronologically, discovering “alternative skins and parallel lives.” The main character finds a transcendental reality in which she can be in the world without an identity. She declares at the end: “I am one with the stars and the moon and the sun and the whole universe. I am magnificent, invincible, sublime. I will love who I want to and I will be loved right back.” She is free to not be in relationship to anyone else. Sandoval enters an endless universe of possibilities, even if the last shot finds her alone on the shore where she once lay with Samuel.

This short film gave the director an opportunity to test some of the ideas for her next feature, Tropical Gothic, which will transport viewers back to Colon Street. Delving into the Philippines in the sixteenth century, it is set under the grip of Spanish colonialism. The narrative likewise features a strong woman lead. This time a native Filipina priestess pretends to be possessed by the spirit of her Spanish master’s dead bride in order to avenge the theft of her property and farmland. The allegory, however, concerns the US and Hollywood. Sandoval admits: “In the present day, it’s really America that is exerting its cultural hegemony, especially Hollywood, over the world culture. It’s the one that continues to invade countries—in the Middle East, in the developing world.” With her new success in the US film industry, this next film will be produced and released by a major Hollywood production company. The irony is clear to Sandoval. As we end our conversation, she chuckles to herself and adds, “I am using the resources of Hollywood to make a film that critiques it.”

Like her characters, Isabel Sandoval continues to push back, take control, and be the maker of her own reality. When asked what advice she has for young trans immigrant filmmakers, she says: “Never let anyone tell you that your voice and your story isn’t valid and that you have to dumb it down and filter it to reach a broader audience. Stick to your gut instinct and just go out there and tell your story.”

“I am using the resources of Hollywood to make a film that critiques it.”

Still from the film "Señorita shows a woman in a blue dress looking into a mirror and placing an intricate crown of silver jewels on her head.
Señorita (2011). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Isabel Sandoval.


1. Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (New York: Random House, 1989).

2. Miu Miu Women’s Tales #21 – Isabel Sandoval and Ava DuVernay In Conversation with Penny Martin,