Romantic Ecstasy: In Conversation with Isabel Sandoval

Romantic Ecstasy: In Conversation with Isabel Sandoval

 One of the most passionate and original filmmakers working today, Isabel Sandoval is blazing a path from the Philippines through to Hollywood while maintaining a firm grip on her singular voice. Here, Alessia Galatini meets the filmmaker to discuss faith, emotion, and the love she wants the world to feel from her films. 

Isabel Sandoval started her filmmaking journey in the Filipino arthouse scene. When Lingua Franca, her first feature set in the United States, was screened at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, her success began to attract international attention. Sandoval’s films have earned her the title of “Queen of Sensual Cinema”. Through her gaze, she explores intimate stories of women as they navigate life, identity and agency on the brink of global changes.

When we meet over Zoom, Sandoval discusses the connection between filmmakers and audience, the legacy of her cinema and how her themes have resonated on a worldwide scale.

Being introduced to the Girls on Tops range, your name alone is becoming a statement. What’s your experience of navigating fame and connecting with your audience?

I just feel so starstruck over the other major women filmmakers that are featured in Girls on Tops. You have Agnès Varda, Maya Deren, and they’ve added women authors now too: Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf… I’m just really humbled. For me, social media added a lot of fun [to the relationship with my audience]. I wasn’t necessarily trying to take Twitter seriously or in a self-important way. 

I wanted social media to be fun and that’s hopefully the same experience people have when they see my tweets or they engage with me on social media, because I do what I do for the love of cinema. Whether it’s making movies or tweeting, I just want to be able to transmit that same passion, voraciousness and appetite in the different platforms that I find myself in.

What does “the female gaze” mean to you?

It’s a gaze where the women on camera are allowed to be complex and layered and multi-faceted. We’re so used to the female object of the male gaze in cinema being passive. In my work not only do the women come across as sexually desirable but, in Lingua Franca specifically, Olivia [the main character] is aware and in control of that desire and that sexual agency. That doesn’t diminish her dignity or humanity in any way. 

In fact, it’s through the manifestation of her sexual desires that she takes on more dimensions. Especially when you think of the character as being a trans immigrant of colour. Oftentimes we’d only think of them as a statistic, a footnote. But here I like to think I fleshed out Olivia and by tapping into her sexual needs I’m also showing a facet to this minority character that’s never been explored in American cinema before.

Would you say that cinema is your lingua franca, in the sense it allows you to communicate on a global scale? How has the response to your films differed from the Philippines to Europe and the US?

It’s interesting because I emerged from the arthouse Filipino film scene. I shot my first two films in the Philippines and they were both in Tagalog. Arthouse Filipino cinema is very much steeped in the social realism tradition. In the 1970s you had Lino Brocka and much more recently you have Brillante Mendoza, who won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. I think a lot of international film festivals, especially major ones in Europe, expect that similar kind of neo-realist aesthetic, almost documentary-like. 

I was thrilled that Lingua Franca, given the movie that it is, a lot more sensuous and lyrical, was selected for the Venice Film Festival. But then, the first reviews of the film were not quite… [laughs] positive. They mentioned that films like this should be more… for lack of a better term, “poverty porn”. But over months, public opinion turned around. By the time it was released in North America through ARRAY, Ava DuVernay’s company, the consensus had become more positive. Cinephiles and audiences are becoming more open to a new sensibility both of Philippine cinema and queer cinema. I’m lucky it didn’t take years.

Faith is a recurrent theme in your films, and often the backbone of the friendships we come to care about. What does faith mean to you in the context of connection? Do you ever feel it’s a double-edged sword in terms of how religion can antagonize queerness? 

The fact that Catholicism features quite prominently has to do with the fact that I was born and raised in a predominantly and neurotically religious country. I was an altar boy [laughs]. So it’s close to me. Growing up, my critical faculties developed to the point that I’m now a lot more cynical about Catholicism and the practices of the church. 

I still can’t deny that it’s a part of who I am. Even though my relationship with faith is ambivalent, even though I moved to the US, Catholicism will always be a facet of my character. It will always feature in my work in complicated and mysterious ways.

Your films are character-driven, intimate portrayals of very flawed individuals. At the same time, their existence is perfectly contextualised in the socio-political environment around them. Would you say we’re all inescapably linked by the society we live in? How do you choose when to set your films?

I tend to zero in on those moments that feel like pivotal transitions. Antonio Gramsci’s quote at the start of Apparition goes: “The old is dying and the new world struggles to be born". In Apparition, it’s the year before the declaration of Martial law, one of the most harrowing periods in modern Philippine history. 

In Lingua Franca, it’s the start of the Trump administration. I’m interested in how these moments trigger an internal, emotional and psychological change in the characters. My thesis about characters and the worlds that I create in my films is that people don’t exist in a vacuum. We exist in a specific political, socio-economic context. Especially if we’re in the lower rank of the food chain in terms of power and privilege, we feel the repercussions more profoundly. 

Who are the filmmakers that left something with you that you carried forward in your career?

One truly important inspiration, aside from Wong Kar-wai, who I always mention, is Chantal Akerman. Both Jeanne Dielman and News From Home. The opening and closing montages in Lingua Franca were inspired by News from Home

What was groundbreaking for me about Jeanne Dielman was the sheer audacity to say that observing a woman’s daily chores and domestic rituals is a worthwhile subject for art. That helped me, in my evolution as a filmmaker, to focus on the interior life of women characters. The second half of Shangri-La is essentially a stream of consciousness of this woman’s fantasies and desires.

What do you hope to leave behind with your films?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I’ve been thinking about how I can stay true to my art. Even though I get offered Hollywood projects, I want to continue to create what truly feels personal to me. I’d like to have my work be remembered for awakening a feeling of desire in my audiences. Why do I watch movies? I want to feel in love. We want to feel passion, we want to feel desire. That’s the emotional experience I had watching Wong Kar-wai’s films. I’d like to create that same profound, singular and complex emotional experience. If there’s one feeling that I’d want to leave audiences with, it would be romantic ecstasy.

Alessia Galatini (@alessiagalatini) is a writer, script editor and film journalist based in London. She runs the Film & TV section of the feminist magazine The F Word and is particularly keen on queer, bold and outside the box narratives.

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