Guest post by Christine Peralta.
Deeply nuanced and wonderfully shot, Lingua Franca is a beautiful film about a Filipina trans woman living in New York named Olivia. Olivia is portrayed by Isabel Sandoval, who also wrote and directed the film.
Lingua Franca starts with two phone calls, simple and brief phone conversations that convey the complexity of Olivia’s life. Waking her up in the early morning hours, the first call is from Olivia’s mother. The call is slightly disorienting, since it comes at the beginning of Olivia’s day, while occurring at the end of her mom’s day. With this exchange, Sandoval conveys to the viewer how living abroad can often sensorially feel like a series of dislocations and time jumps. We also learn that Olivia’s mother relies on the money that she sends back home. Olivia works as a live-in-caregiver. Shortly after the scene ends, Olivia receives a second phone call from her employer, Olga, an elderly Jewish matriarch, who calls Olivia asking when she can go home. Olivia patiently reminds her that she is in fact home and helps her remember her surroundings. From the exchange we learn that Olga is experiencing her own time jumps and dislocations as she begins to develop early signs of dementia.
With these brief interactions, Sandoval depicts how important Olivia’s work is not only to her family who relies on her for financial support, but also her employer who relies on her to care for Olga. The two families are bound together by the work that Olivia performs as a caregiver. These intimate and yet invisible linkages between the Philippines and North America are often not dealt with openly in mainstream media. And when they are, Filipinas are often depicted as stock characters who are there to be the butt of a cheap joke or misplaced animosity and suspicion, such as the Filipina nanny depicted in the Canadian television series Workin’ Moms. In contrast, Sandoval’s Olivia provides a valued service because it is work that Olga’s family struggles to perform themselves, often lacking the patience or experience to know how to interact with an aging elderly relative.
One of the primary conflicts in the film is that Olivia is undocumented. She is in the middle of pursuing the clearest pathway to citizenship which is to hire a man who will marry her so she can get a green card. Therefore, in Olivia’s world, intimacy and courtship often carries a different meaning of survival, security, and permanence in a country that has grown increasingly more hostile towards immigrants. For example, when Olivia retreats to her bedroom after her childhood friend’s wedding, she whispers to herself, “By the power vested in me by the state of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife,” while pasting pictures of her fake boyfriend in an album that documents their relationship. For Olivia, a wedding would be the culmination of a long process to meticulously archive evidence that would prove the veracity of a false relationship. The scene calls to mind Filipino migration scholar Martin Manalansan’s observation: “The ‘undocumented’ immigrant is not someone who does not have documents but rather is someone whose papers are in disarray or not in proper, ‘official’ state-sanctioned order” (Manalansan, 2014).
The dilemma of addressing the care needs of aging relatives as well as the strategies that undocumented immigrants deploy to navigate a shrinking world are weighty topics that Sandoval manages to depict with lightness, beauty, and complexity.
Isabel Sandoval’s latest feature film Lingua Franca is being distributed by ARRAY, Ava DuVernay’s film distribution company, and is currently streaming on Netflix. As a special treat for IU Cinema, Sandoval has recorded an exclusive introduction for the film:
Join us in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room for two special virtual events with filmmaker Isabel Sandoval as part of the series Isabel Sandoval: Uncompromising Vision. On September 15, there will be a virtual film introduction, film screening, and interactive Q&A with Sandoval for her film Aparisyon (Apparition). She will then be present for a virtual conversation and interactive Q&A as part of the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Series on September 18.
Christine Peralta is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society and History. She holds a doctorate in history with a minor in Asian American studies from the University of Illinois. She writes on the history of U.S. empire, the Filipino/a diaspora, gender, and labor history and is working on a book entitled Insurgent Care: Reimagining the Health Work of Filipina Women, 1870-1965.