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How Trump's Presidency Helped Shape Isabel Sandoval's 'Lingua Franca' Movie

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What is it like to move through life under the Trump administration as a trans woman and a woman of color who's in the U.S. illegally? That is the question filmmaker Isabel Sandoval explores in her new movie "Lingua Franca." Sandoval stars in the film as Olivia, a live-in Filipinx caregiver for an older Russian woman. When the woman's grandson Alex moves in, Olivia has to teach him how to help care for his grandmother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LINGUA FRANCA")

ISABEL SANDOVAL: (As Olivia) Have you ever looked after your grandmother before?

EAMON FARREN: (As Alex) No.

SANDOVAL: (As Olivia) Well, you don't have to give her a bath, if that's what you're thinking. She doesn't need that kind of help yet. Just wait for me to do it. And on my days off and you're home here with her, if you're ever unsure of anything, you can always give me a call.

CHANG: When I talked to Isabel Sandoval earlier this week, she told me living through the first few months of Trump's presidency helped shape her entire film.

SANDOVAL: It felt like I was kind of sleepwalking for those first few weeks and then a kind of hardening against reality. So - and it also felt like someone was pushing against an invisible, powerful force that's encroaching on me. And it's becoming more and more suffocating as time went on.

CHANG: What was it about you that you perceived was being suffocated or encroached upon?

SANDOVAL: My sense of safety and security as both a person and as an artist and filmmaker. My previous feature before making "Lingua Franca" was called "Apparition," and it was actually set in the early '70s in the Philippines on the eve of the declaration of martial law, which was a period of extreme oppression and suppression of the freedom of expression, especially by artists, political dissidents. I was not born during that period of martial law. I felt like I was reliving that same history this time, but instead of the Philippines, here in the U.S. And it's just so unsettling, especially to me, who - I would joke to my friends that I'm a gold star minority.

CHANG: What do you mean by that?

SANDOVAL: I'm a minority on a number levels and dimensions. Not only am I a woman, I'm a trans women of color who happens to be an immigrant.

CHANG: At the beginning of this film, your character Olivia, you know, she's working towards marrying a man for a green card. And it's just a financial transaction for both of them, something that they both agreed to. But Olivia's best friend Trixie, she has a very different kind of relationship in her life. I mean, Trixie is also a trans Filipinx immigrant woman, but she has this, like, warm, loving relationship with the American man whom she's marrying. Tell me - why was it important to you to include Trixie's story in this film?

SANDOVAL: I wanted to include, you know, a whole spectrum and diversity of experience of trans women, Filipina trans women in the U.S. that doesn't just focus on one monolithic narrative that's, you know, miserable or lonely. And that's why Trixie is a good counterpoint in that there are trans women who find themselves in relationships that are healthy.

CHANG: Yeah.

SANDOVAL: I don't want Olivia's predicament and situation in the film to be seen as representative of everyone in that community.

CHANG: Right. Well, I want to talk about what happens between Olivia and Alex, the grandson of the woman Olivia is taking care of. Alex and Olivia, they begin this romance. And when he finds out that she's trans, he feels betrayed. And I have to tell you, Isabel, at that moment, I was bracing myself for violence in this movie. Can you tell me why you chose to have Alex retaliate against Olivia in a very different way, that didn't involve physical violence?

SANDOVAL: Certainly. Physical violence has become such a trope in, you know, films centering transgender women in relationships with cisgender men. But I wanted to show a different kind of violence that was more insidious, precisely because it was invisible. And it's not just specific to the experience of trans women or to women, but to relationships where there is a power imbalance. That comes into play here between Olivia, who's undocumented and trans and a minority, and Alex, who although he is a third-generation immigrant, he is also an American citizen and cisgender. And he retaliates with emotional and psychological violence by gaslighting her.

CHANG: Yeah. You know, as we were saying earlier, not only as Olivia a trans woman, an identity that we don't see starring in movies that often, she is also Filipinx. And within the very small number of Hollywood movies that I see Asian actors star in, even fewer feature specifically Filipinx actors. So I'm wondering, how do you hope this film will shift the way American audiences view Filipinx characters in film?

SANDOVAL: Based on the responses and feedback that I've gotten so far - you know, I get private messages on Instagram from people who've seen the film on Netflix, like, Filipinx or, you know, trans filmmakers - they told me that this is really one of the first time that they've seen someone like them, you know, represented on screen. And that emboldened them to also tell their own stories. And I hope that continues.

I think it's great that this film is on a streaming platform like Netflix and not doing a regular theatrical release because I feel like this is - "Lingua Franca" is a grower of a movie. You don't leave the film with a clear and certain impression of it, you know? But I made a film that I hope lingers and haunts and grows on a viewer over the next few days.

CHANG: Yeah. I will have to say that that was the experience for me. It's also interesting hearing you say that the virtual release of "Lingua Franca" has actually been a good thing for your work.

SANDOVAL: Yeah. Because, you know, for a film that touches on really topical and urgent issues like immigration and the transgender experience, one would expect, you know, such a film to be a little preachy, you know, maybe loud and performatively agitated and angry. But instead, it's a quiet, thoughtful, subtle film. You know, the qualities of the silence has carried as much emotional weight as a dialogue between the characters.

CHANG: Oh, I love it. Isabel Sandoval wrote, directed, edited, produced and starred in the new film "Lingua Franca."

Thank you so much for being with us today.

SANDOVAL: Thank you so much for having me here, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "ANIMALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.