Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca continues the current trajectory in contemporary film that signals this forward shift towards genuine representation in queer narratives. But what Sandoval accomplishes is quite a feat as she does more than one thing other than directing—she wrote the screenplay and acted as one of the producers. She also cast herself as the main protagonist in the film, putting herself in the lead character Olivia’s predicament and marking the film’s act of self-reflexivity. 

Sandoval is born Filipino and this is her first film after her gender transition and after she moved to the US. With the film, Sandoval earned the distinction of being the first transwoman of color to debut a film in a festival when it premiered in the Giornate degli Autori (Venice Days) section of the Venice Film Festival in 2019. The term 'lingua franca' means mother tongue and this refers to her native Cebu and the language she was born into speaking which is Cebuano-Bisaya. 

The film begins with a conversation over the phone in Cebuano where we are introduced to Sandoval’s Olivia awaken by an early call from her mother in the Philippines, reminding her to send her allowance for the week. Olivia is caregiver who stays with Olga (Lynn Cohen), an old Russian-American woman who is battling dementia. In an interesting contrast, we see Olga’s introduction through another opening scene that culminates in her calling Olivia over the phone. She asks, “when do I get home?”, and Olivia reminds her of certain markers in the house to bring back her memory. When it is revealed that Olivia is just downstairs doing laundry, we see Sandoval already playing with the dichotomies of home, at once distant and immediate, through these two conversations with a mother. 

Aside from familial responsibility, Olivia must strive hard at work if she is to pursue her goal of getting a green card in the US. Unlike her long-time friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino), also a Filipina transwoman who got romantically lucky, Olivia must pay for someone to marry her. Trouble arises when Matthew, the guy Olivia is supposed to marry, decided to break up with her, or in the context of it as a business deal, bailed out when he finds a new girl. However, Olivia’s romantic fate experiences a turnaround with the arrival of Alex (Eamon Farron), Olga’s grandson who just came out of prison and had just started working at a local slaughterhouse. 

Sparks ignite as Olivia and Alex take turns in taking care of Olga. They develop a bond that soon culminates in a sexual relationship, one that is crucial in depicting Olivia’s femininity. We see her experience female sensuality, a scene made more lyrical and innate as she recites in Cebuano poetry. As Alex cozies up to Olivia, driving her to send home pasalubong, he becomes aware of Olivia’s predicament as an undocumented worker. With this, the film is not intent only on making Alex’s character the romantic co-lead, but also a reflection of Olivia’s identity as immigrant worker. The film’s setting is Brighton Beach, Coney Island in Brooklyn that Sandoval said she wanted to really hone in. In reality, this part of New York, which visually is kind of a different borough in itself looking like it is suspended in time, is home to generations of Russian-American immigrants, whom Alex belongs to. 

Olivia’s identity as transgender grounds itself to the film’s main source of tension, which is the current socio-political milieu in Trump’s America. With the intensified immigration crackdown, arrests of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents come shockingly unannounced. The film dramatizes this current reality through everyday news and in a scene, though while brief, gives us a glimpse of the horror of such an encounter. (I am reminded of a scene in Miko Revereza’s documentary No Data Plan, also released last year, when an almost-encounter with ICE jolts us to the imminent threat faced by immigrants.) The choice to film it at the current socio-political climate in the US shows the connectedness of the struggle for trans rights to larger issues like immigration, and from the nature of the crackdown itself, the struggle to maintain human dignity in a foreign soil.

Sandoval’s second film Aparisyon (Apparition), made in the Philippines and which competed in Cinemalaya in 2012, is a period film that centers on a group of nuns during Martial Law era. It is fraught with the similar psychological tension and debilitating silences that overwhelms the second half Lingua Franca. in one of her interviews, she suggested that silence in the film also in itself a “lingua franca”, and rightly so, as Olivia plunges into deeper introspections of her situation, she finds herself unable to gain foothold of her relationship with Alex. The film fumbles in giving narrative clarity in the mechanics of the breakup but this may be intentional on the part of Sandoval. 

While the film ends in cliffhanger scene that is a repetition of another earlier scene, the most poignant (non)closure to the film is what occurs during the final moments with Alex. Olivia gets her passport back—a passport that still identifies her as a man—and shows us that final image, a symbol of citizenship much like how a mother tongue is a cultural marker, and asks us: did she really reclaim her identity? With that, Lingua Franca brings us back again to the central struggle of her identity as a transwoman which continues to fight for recognition in the country she once called home.  

Jay Rosas