How Making a Film Led Isabel Sandoval to Come Out as Trans
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because movies are still magical.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Director Isabel Sandoval stopped by The Carlos Watson Show to hit her marks on the way to “Lights, camera, action!” with OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson. Here are some of the best cuts from the longer conversation, which you can listen to in full here.
On Her Film Lingua Franca
Carlos Watson: And, Isabel, tell me a little bit about the film. I saw it, and incredible subtle storytelling. I love what you did. It’s a beautiful film. Where did that come from? Is it partially autobiographical? Where does that story come from?
Isabel Sandoval: Certainly. Lingua Franca is my third dramatic feature. But it’s my first to be shot in the U.S. And it’s my first after my gender transition. I started writing Lingua Franca around 2015, about two years after my second feature, Apparition, came out. And at that time, I was also undergoing a gender transition. But the final premise of Lingua Franca did not really come together until early 2017.
But as we all know, in late 2016, you got a new president in the White House. And during those first few months, after the election and during the inauguration, just like many minorities living in the U.S., I was feeling very anxious and trepidatious and just vulnerable about my situation. Not just as an individual living in the U.S., but also as a filmmaker who is making a film about a Filipino trans woman living in New York City. And Lingua Franca is essentially a distillation of my emotional state during those months. And that tension, that paranoia, made it so organically into what becomes the atmosphere of the film.
And as I’ve said that it’s not autobiographical, in that my similarity with a main character, whose name is Olivia, is that we’re both Filipina trans immigrants living in New York City. There is definitely a part of me that I can see in this character, which I wrote myself in terms of the psychological and emotional truth about the anxiety that she was living through in the film.
CW: Was it hard completing this film? Any harder than completing your first two films? Or in some ways, because you had that much emotion tied up in it, and you had a need and a desire to share that, in a weird way, was it easier to put this film both on the page and ultimately on the screen?
IS: Yeah. I think what I can see about myself is that I can be objective and critical about the work that I do in that all of the films, I’m able to really distance myself, especially since we only had 16 days to shoot the film. And I needed to be present every minute that I was making it from the beginning of the day to the evening, but not be overwhelmed by what I was doing. I was the writer, director. I was the main protagonist in the film, and then I eventually edited the film. The reason why I wasn’t intimidated, or daunted, by all those hats that I wore in making the film was because even from the start, I had a very clear idea of the film that I wanted to make. And doing those five roles, wearing those five specific hats, was key to ensuring that my vision for the film was translated from the page to this screen faithfully across.
CW: And what would you say is your superpower as a filmmaker? Because I can tell that you’re very thoughtful about this, and it’s interesting that you’ve played different roles in it. You remind me what Prince used to be to music. Because he could play all the different instruments as well as sing. And so he could do the whole thing. You were making me think that you’re the Prince of filmmaking, meaning that you have that ability to come into a film in lots of different places. But what is your superpower? What do you think that you are best at?
IS: I think what I’m best at, in terms of being a filmmaker, is that I have a clear and particular vision. And I know that filmmaking, unlike writing, for instance, or being a painter, it’s not a solitary act of creation. As a director, you’re essentially a conductor of an orchestra. And you’re conducting a group of musicians, some of whom might not be playing with as much passion or expertise as you expect them to. They might not be reading the same page of music that you’re conducting. And so it’s really important, for me as a filmmaker, that I understand the big picture. And that I can make sure from the start of the process to the end of it, that I don’t lose sight of that. And especially when it comes to making art, and cinema in particular, one thing that I learned after having made Lingua Franca is, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, “At the end of the day, audiences are going to forget about the characters in your film. They’re going to forget about the different plot points, but they will never forget how your film made them feel.”
And so I always have my eyes and my mindset on the emotional destination that they want to get my audience to. And as long as all the elements that are filling up in the film add up and help me get to that destination, that is what’s most important to me as a filmmaker.
CW: And what emotional destination did you want to take us to with Lingua Franca?
IS: With Lingua Franca, it’s a cautious optimism in that some audience members might be surprised or disappointed by Olivia’s decision in the end. And not to spoil the film, but her decision might come across as counter-intuitive and practical and foolish for someone in your situation. But it’s at that moment where I invite the audience to look at Olivia beyond nearly as an undocumented immigrant, or a trans woman looking for love, but as someone who wants to gain back agency, her ability to determine for herself her future, even if it’s strapped with uncertainty. And as a result, the film transcends being merely a social issue drama, and becomes a story of resiliency and survival.
The Gender Transition
CW: Isabel, tell me a little bit, if you would, if you don’t mind, a little bit about your gender transition, and how you came to that decision and what that journey was like.
IS: Yeah. In terms of my transition, I didn’t really realize there was trans until after I moved to the U.S. In the Philippines, there were certainly trans women, but I didn’t really identify with being trans back then because the portrayal of trans individuals in popular culture and in film and TV back home is a very narrow and a very limited depiction. And that’s very kind of a flamboyant, boy-chasing type. And while there are certainly trans men like that, I feel like that’s such a type, and almost always trans people are depicted as a laughingstock or objectified. And I was a very reserved, soft-spoken, intellectual-type kid.
But my role models growing up were not men, but strong and independent women. Jane Fonda was someone that I looked up to. And it wasn’t until after I moved to the U.S., when I saw two new different trans individuals from various backgrounds — like someone who’s working at a nonprofit organization or someone who is a marketing executive, and people who were married and had kids. And I saw that they were asking themselves questions that I was beginning to ask myself. And that’s when I started realizing that I may be trans, that I, in fact, made my first feature called Senorita playing a trans woman as a way for me to test the waters of whether in fact I was trans.
… I can say that by pursuing my passion for film, it brought me to a realization that I was trans. And the moment that I decided to transition was when I realized that I wasn’t transitioning to become a woman, but I was transitioning to become more fully myself, which just happens to be a woman.
CW: And how have you changed? Making that decision to become more fully yourself, if I now fast-forward five, seven years later, are you different? And in part, was it that process of transitioning that changed you in any meaningful way?
IS: Yeah, it definitely, I feel like it emancipated me, so to speak, to really pursue things and do things that felt authentic. Because that decision to transition is not something that I took lightly, especially given this current political climate. Was I crazy to transition when people in my community are being discriminated against, especially in the Trump administration? But I also felt empowered and emboldened by that decision. And that’s why it was very important for me to tell a story like Lingua Franca in my own voice and that it came from a place of authenticity. Because by making the ultimate gesture of authenticity through my transition anyway, in a way I felt a kind of pleasant and welcome pressure to also be authentic in other aspects of my life and my art.
CW: And what about love and relationships. How has that evolved, if at all?
IS: Great. I am in an amazing relationship at the moment. So, yeah, I haven’t really had any trouble with romantic relationships. And there are actually, I’m a straight trans woman, and fortunately for me, I have not had any problems meeting people who I have been in a healthy and nurturing emotional relationship with.
CW: Who has been most helpful to you as you’ve tried to bring your dreams alive?
IS: Yep. First and most important of all is definitely my mother. She was a single mother since I was 4. And I’ve just been very, very lucky that my mother allowed me and gave me the space and the freedom to pursue things that interested me and that it felt passionate. And I am really, really happy that I made her proud even having transitioned, and with her still living in the Philippines, in a country that can be very, very conservative. She did not initially jump for joy when I first told her that I was transitioning. But she told me after I came out to her, “At the end of the day, you’re still my child, and I love you no matter what.” I truly feel vindicated that with everything that’s happened this past year, and the last few years since I transitioned, that I’ve been making her prouder of me with every achievement and accomplishment. That really fills my heart with joy.