Filipina filmmaker and actress Isabel Sandoval caught the attention of international critics when her stunning third feature film—which she wrote, directed, produced, edited, and starred in—Lingua Franca premiered at Venice in 2019, making her the first publicly identifying trans woman of colour to screen work in competition at the festival. The acclaimed film, which immerses us in the life of an undocumented Filipina trans immigrant woman living in New York, was nominated for the Queer Lion at Venice and picked up both GLAAD and Independent Spirt awards. Acquired by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing, the film found a platform on Netflix last summer. As the independent auteur prepares to make her ambitious fourth feature, Tropical Gothic, which she describes as her take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo and “an allegory on colonialism”, her first two feature films are currently playing on the Criterion Channel.
Her 2011 debut, the noirish Señorita, which she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in, typifies her work in its centring of a complex female character—in this case a trans sex worker determined to start a new life in a small town—whose personal journey is tangled up in sociopolitical realities. The atmospheric and intense psychological drama Apparition (Aparisyon), released the following year—which Sandoval co-wrote, produced, directed, and co-edited but did not act in—marks an evolution in the filmmaker’s visual style, with more purposeful and lyrical cinematography by Jay Abello. Set in 1971, the political unrest of Ferdinand Marcos era Philippines begins to encroach upon a covent of strictly observant Catholic nuns.
In April 2021, Sandoval was honoured with the Trailblazer Award from GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics at their annual Dorian Awards.
With Señorita and Apparition now playing on the Criterion Channel, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Isabel Sandoval about how she first fell in love with cinema, what inspired her films, the recurring themes in her work, how playing a fictional character helped her embrace her own gender identity, and the Japanese LGBTQ+ film from 1969 that’s currently inspiring her.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: firstly, could I take you back and ask you to give us a flavor of how you first got into filmmaking and what the draw of the medium was for you creatively?
Isabel Sandoval: “One of my earliest childhood memories is actually when my mom took me to see a movie in my hometown of Cebu City in the Philippines at this giant movie palace that was built just after the Second World War. She took me to this comedy starring the Charlie Chaplin of the Philippines. I don’t remember that much about the movie itself, it was kind of a generic comedy, but I can remember being awestruck by these flickering images being projected onto this massive screen. I think that started my infatuation and passion for cinema, for the movies. We don’t get to choose our passions, our passions choose us and I think that’s what happened with me and movies. Movies to me feel like a kind of magic or an escape from reality.”
“Growing up, the kind of movies that I was exposed to in the Philippines were mainstream Filipino movies, which for the most part are essentially parodies of Hollywood films and very genre-driven, like comedies, or horror, or melodrama. It wasn’t until high school that I started seeking out world cinema. One of the things that I did as a high school student for our literature class was convince the teacher to have us adapt the novels or the plays that we were studying into a movie instead of making us take a written final exam. So those films would be our final project. When I was in freshman year in high school, my group and I adapted the Agatha Christie play Ten Little Indians into a movie. It was a very amateurish, low budget production but that’s what really got me started on my filmmaking journey.”
“When I would get inspired, I would come up with stories not as written words on a page as a screenplay but as scenes cut together that would form into a narrative in my mind. That’s become my creative outlet. When I started coming up with these ideas for films the main protagonists would always be a woman, and a woman that’s headstrong and independent. When I was in college I started collecting arthouse DVDs, but they weren’t sold in video shops, they were only sold on black market DVD stalls in Cebu and Manila, so that’s how I discovered the works of Almodóvar, Wong Kar Wai, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.”
“Even though I was in love with the movies and wanted to be a filmmaker, it took me a while to convince myself that filmmaking could be a grown-up professional career because of how risky it can be and how much hard work it can take for struggling filmmakers to see any success, and even then success is not guaranteed. So I studied psychology for my undergrad and then I went to NYU around 2007 after graduating from college in the Philippines. I came here to the US to get a master’s degree in business at NYU, but the reason that I wanted to come to New York was that I knew that this was the capital of the independent film scene in the US. In fact, between classes at NYU I would go to the arthouse movie theaters like the Angelica and the IFC Center and spend the afternoon watching movies there.”
“After I graduated from NYU, three years later while I was working at a digital media agency for my day job, I decided to make my own films. I started with a short film, Señorita, and then I developed that into my first full length feature which is the Señorita that you can watch now on the Criterion Channel. That’s how I started. I decided to take the plunge and make my own movie. So that was my film school so to speak, since I did not have a traditional film school education.”
You describe yourself as an autodidact and I noticed that that was the name of the production company for Señorita. Could you distill what you learned about the craft of filmmaking from the process of making your three feature films to date?
“I think my biggest regret in shooting Señorita was that I did not really exploit the camera and cinematography for its dramatic function to the fullest. I feel like the way we shot Señorita is like a filmed stage play in that the camera was just there, it was stagnant, although it’s inconsistent throughout the movie. There are some shots that feel more inspired artistically in terms of blocking and framing, but there are some where the camera is just there watching and observing these characters spout off their lines. I think it’s because, just like with Lingua Franca, I wore many hats on Señorita, and I was both in front of and behind the camera. So the cinematography is what I really wanted to work on in Apparition, my follow up film to Señorita, and it helped a lot that I wasn’t acting in Apparition and I was just directing and making the film from behind the camera. That’s when I really focused on mise-en-scène and blocking and how the movement of the camera can really affect and impact the tone and the mood of the film.”
“Another thing that I learned from Señorita is that I felt like I really used dialogue as a crutch in terms of narrative exposition, and with every new feature that I’ve made starting with Apparition, I feel like I’m becoming more attuned to the silences and the pauses and the gaps in between the dialogue and how simply observing the characters and not depending or relying on dialogue can be as revelatory about the characters and their milieus. So with Apparition I focused on the cinematography and the sound design, and realizing the dramatic potential of silence on the soundtrack instead of verbose dialogue and a lot of scoring.”
“With Lingua Franca, I think the important thing I learned is that art, and cinema to be specific, is an emotional experience. At the end of the day, the audience is not necessarily going to remember the intricate details of your plot or the eccentricities or the words of your characters, but they will never forget how your film made them feel. That’s really what I believe the end goal of a film is, to evoke and elicit a genuine feeling in the audience and the more profound and more complex, the more intense and the more unique that emotional experience is for the viewer, the more powerful and indelible your work is for the audience.”
You certainly achieved that, these are all films that really stayed with me and made an indelible emotional impact. I feel like these characters live and breathe outside the confines of their ninety minute framework and can imagine them existing before and after the credits. What inspired Señorita and what did you want to say with that first film?
“Señorita is interesting because it was kind of the end result of a diverse group of films and directors that influenced me, but I think the one film, and in particular the one character and performance, that really started the idea for it was Klute starring Jane Fonda and directed by Alan J. Pakula in 1971. In that film Jane Fonda plays Bree Daniels, an escort in Manhattan who is trying to quit the sex trade and start a new life. What really struck a chord with me was Jane Fonda’s performance and the characterization of Bree Daniels. It was 1971, but she came across as a very modern, complex, layered, and flawed character, fully embodied by Jane Fonda. It was really startlingly different from depictions of women on screen that I’d seen at that time. That was around the time when I started asking myself whether I was trans. In the Philippines on film and in pop culture, trans and queer people are almost always portrayed as these stock stereotypical caricatures, and oftentimes objects of ridicule. Having seen Klute and Jane Fonda’s performance, that inspired me and gave me a pathway to creating complex multi-dimensional trans women characters in the Philippine setting. That’s what got me started.”
“Señorita is like Klute, in that it has a noirish premise, there’s a trans sex worker who wants to leave behind her old life and start a new life in a small town where nobody knows about her, but then the past inevitably catches up with her. With Señorita it’s situated in this very specific sociopolitical milieu, which is the local elections. What I’ve noticed across my three features is that my films tend to be about these women who are disempowered in a certain way and who are harboring secrets and they’re forced to grapple with their personal dilemmas in these fraught sociopolitical settings. For some reason I gravitate towards these complex women characters who are arguably antiheroines in that they’re not necessarily easy to love or understand, but they are, to me at least, closest to what it means to be fully human in that we’re defined by paradoxes and contradictions and sometimes we act on things when we’re not clear what’s motivating us, we act against our better judgment sometimes.”
How did playing the central character in Señorita help you to embrace your own identity as a trans woman, and was that something that you were consciously exploring as you wrote the screenplay?
“In portraying two sides of this fictional character—in that there’s this whole Madonna/whore binary when it comes to the female persona—I wanted to inhabit both those types of women and test the waters, so to speak. It’s really remarkable and fascinating to me how a creative process of inhabiting this character that’s purely fictional allowed me to get to my own truth in terms of my gender identity and how while I was playing these fake characters ironically enough I felt quite comfortable in their skin. That empowered me in some sense or emboldened me to really dig deeper and deal with the question of whether I was trans and I’m glad that the journey of making Señorita helped me get to the realization that I am in fact trans. It was after shooting my second film, Apparition, that I decided to push through with my transition. I had already decided that I was trans while I was doing Señorita but I really took the plunge after shooting my second feature.”
Apparition is set in 1971, a politically tumultuous time in the Philippines. What about that era interests you and with so much going on in the outside world at that time why did you want to set the film in a cloistered Catholic convent?
“I went to a Filipino Chinese Catholic high school. It’s very common that a lot of private schools in the Philippines are run by religious orders and mine was run by Jesuits. One of the Jesuit brothers in that school had this film club where we would only watch films that were banned in mainland China. One of those films was Raise the Red Lantern by the Chinese director Yimou Zhang, starring Gong Li. It’s set in just one location and it’s about the four wives of this lord and the power play and petty bickering that they have with each other. That film was quite haunting and really stayed with me for years. When it was time to work on a second feature that gave me the seed of an idea of doing a film that was set in just in one location, where all the characters were women, and that explored the dynamics of power between them and also guilt and shame, which are very Catholic notions.”
“I was also inspired to make a movie set under martial law during the Marcos dictatorship because when I was very young in the late 80s I remember seeing footage on TV of Catholic nuns who were actually on the frontlines protesting in the streets against military tanks, but it never got violent. These nuns were actually offering the soldiers flowers and defending them. Just that image of these nuns being militant and activist and politically engaged clashed with my initial impressions of nuns as being docile and reserved and passive. So Apparition was my way of externalizing a story about the politicization of Filipina nuns from being very passive to becoming the ones marching in the streets to oust Ferdinand Marcos, which they did. Actually President Marcos fled the Philippines after three days of protests. So that’s the basic idea that inspired Apparition, exploring how these nuns ended up becoming politically engaged and militant and that’s the story that I came up with. It was also inspired by Ingmar Bergman, Apparition is my Bergman movie in that it’s very European arthouse and specifically Bergmanesque in its influences.”
Sexual violence against women is something that recurs in your work and forms a major part of the narrative in Apparition. In Señorita there’s that very distressing scene that’s being videoed and elsewhere in the film we hear the way that some men talk about women, they’re essentially teaching the boy how he should objectify and refer to women. That’s something that also comes up in Lingua Franca with the way that the grandson’s friend talks about sex workers and is transphobic. What interests you in exploring this aspect of toxic masculinity?
“I thought of including episodes and scenes that touched on toxic masculinity because that’s the kind of society we live in, it’s the same whether it’s in the Philippines or in the US. But the premise of the films and the point of the films that I’ve made is not about the victimization or the marginalization of these women in a society that’s misogynistic and sexist, instead they become narratives of resilience and agency and independence. Like in Señorita for instance when that incident happens halfway through, it’s not the kind of incident that psychologically debilitates her and in fact she only becomes more emboldened to pursue the goal that she initially set for herself when it comes to the local elections. In Apparition there’s an incident like that and I wanted to focus on the emotional response of these women characters. It was an exercise in portraying these nuns who were—when we think about Philippine history, especially in the 1970s—kind of nonentities that were barely talked about. I wanted to portray these nuns as psychologically complex and ambivalent and as layered as I could make them.”
“The emotional climax of Apparition sees these two elderly nuns grappling with the enormity and the gravity of what they’ve witnessed and how that has repercussions on them and the community of nuns that they were supposed to protect. In Lingua Franca it’s also most importantly about her agency and her resilience when she turns down the marriage proposal from Alex and decides to go her own way. That ending can be either quite disappointing or seemingly counterintuitive for some audiences who ask why she turned down this offer which could have been the easy way out of her predicament when it comes to her immigration status. But it’s also at that moment that I’m inviting the audience to look at the character of Olivia as more than just a trans woman looking for love or an immigrant without papers, and to see that she’s far more complicated and deeper than that.”
What does it mean to you that the Criterion Channel is showcasing your work as a filmmaker and spotlighting Señorita and Apparition?
“Oh my God, this is quite honestly the best thing that has happened to me this year! I feel like I’ve made it and I have my arthouse street cred now as a filmmaker because when Criterion decides to feature your work it’s essentially a stamp of true cinematic quality and that your work as a filmmaker has cultural significance in the international film scene. I think it’s the perfect culmination to the surreal and exciting journey that Lingua Franca has had since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, then six months later the world getting plunged into this pandemic, yet the film continued to find its fans and audiences internationally, and now the Criterion Channel has programmed my earlier work. It’s a really gratifying experience and vindicating of my own path as an independent filmmaker. I wanted to make films that were quite distinct and original and I wanted to break as many rules as possible and shied away from conventions and tropes, both searching for my own voice as a filmmaker and inventing my own cinematic language and sensibility in the process. It’s truly a delight and exciting that the Criterion Collection is recognizing the artistic merit and importance of my work and of course I’m thankful also to Ava DuVernay and the ARRAY collective which acquired and distributed Lingua Franca in the US and Canada.”
You currently have another feature in the works don’t you?
“Yes, I’m working on a new film called Tropical Gothic, which is set in the 16th century in the Philippines. It’s an allegory on colonialism and it’s my own take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I’m very excited about it because it’s my most ambitious work so far.”
Finally, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you?
“Funeral Parade of Roses, or Bara no sôretsu, from 1969. To be honest, I only discovered it recently. It’s such a formerly inventive and adventurous and playful film. To think that this came out in 1969 and it’s about Tokyo’s underground drag and queer culture is incredible. It’s such a fascinating and accomplished film and it’s inspiring me as a filmmaker to continue making experimental and bold and risky films in the future.”
By James Kleinmann
Isabel Sandoval’s first two features Señorita (2011) and Apparition (2012) are now playing on the Criterion Channel, along with an exclusive meet the filmmaker video by Sandoval. Sign up for a free 14-day Criterion Channel trial.