Love in the Time of Diaspora

Manila Death Squad director Dean Colin Marcial looks at Isabel Sandoval’s new film, Lingua Franca, through a distinctly personal lens.

For the longest time, any instance where I was asked to open my passport was met with fear. This seemed irrational: it was only a little burgundy book emblazoned with the words “Pilipinas Pasaporte,” filled with stamps of where I’ve been and where I’ve needed a visa, which was most places.

My fear, in turn, evoked fear in whoever was looking. A person of my citizenship might be considered a flight risk, which is to say I may never return to where I came from, if not for another document: a green card, infinitely more valuable than the burgundy book in the eyes of my gatekeepers.

The arrivals terminal at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.

Even with this precious plastic in my hip pocket, every time I’d re-enter the country, the Automated Passport Control terminal always printed out a big X on my picture on the slip, pointing me towards another line, one that moved slower, where you were asked questions instead of just turning in the receipt. This created a barrier for containing and passing — one lane for holding suspects up to scrutiny, and the other a kind of EZ-Pass through the border.

This barrier is at the heart of Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca, a haunting portrait of vulnerable lives and loves in flux. Centered around the romance between Olivia (Sandoval), a migrant Filipinx trans woman, and Alex (Eamon Farren), a boyish down-and-out wanderer in Brighton Beach, the film is timely for some and everyday for others. The urgency of immigration issues in the national discourse makes topical what is mundane to the marginalized; the film casts a spotlight on the process of being invisible in America and staying that way.

Eamon Farren and Isabel Sandoval in Lingua Franca.

The plot is spare; tensions lie in the emotional in-between: a sensual-fantasy superimposition of poetry being read over skin, an establishing shot of snow falling quietly on the boardwalk. Autobiographical intimacy is a ghost in every scene — the ethereal fictionalization of lived-in conversation and circumstance is favored over the directness of documentary.

The common thread between the lovers is adoption, to forget one tongue and embrace a new language. With that comes inevitable erasure: for Olivia, her history as a man and a Philippine national; for Alex, his depression, alcoholism, and aimlessness. They’re also linked together by the fading agency of their aging mutual ward, Olga (Lynn Cohen) — Alex’s grandmother and Olivia’s employer. In order to chase the American Dream, one must abandon the familiar and rough it out on new frontiers.

Isabel Sandoval in Lingua Franca.

But the pressure that brings them together also fractures the affair, founded on protracted truths and propelled by a feverish, consuming passion. In the middle of the film, Alex goes down on Olivia, and the camera stays with her ecstasy, occasionally muted by his appeals to keep quiet — Grandma, after all, is in the next room over.

There are practical and emotional limits to their visibility. Sustaining their relationship means keeping secrets: Olivia doesn’t disclose her operation and Alex withholds her passport after discovering her gender reassignment. Confronting this is to doom their love and embrace assimilation. Instead they elect to act with futile caution, vulnerable in a world becoming increasingly hostile to them.

The spectre of present politics hangs over the movie, illustrating the fraught feeling of statelessness to those who don’t already know: the beat that your heart skips at the sight of the police, the gaze at your skin color as out of place, the anxiety of impermanence. An émigré’s journey continues long after transit — a state of transience becomes the only constant.

My mom’s side of the family in Manila, a few years before we left for the States.
Some time later in the early 2000s after we moved to the States, before we acquired our green cards.

In 2011, coming back from the Philippines, I was held in a detention center because I’d been arrested a year before for smoking a joint in Washington Square Park. The city of New York waived the $20 fine in lieu of a probationary program that dropped the conviction after six months of good behavior (and you bet I stayed away from trouble).

But to the federal government, a conviction was a conviction and was grounds for possible deportation via immigration court. I missed my connection waiting in nowhere land — technically not the United States or anywhere in particular, eavesdropping on a Chinese couple facing expulsion for expired visas. A Homeland Security officer questioned me and my answers were later sent to my address in a transcript of the interview with the heading “The People of the United States vs. Dean Marcial.”

My mom holding up a picture of me from the Philippines in Flushing.

The case turned out to be one of mistaken identity — someone claiming to be me had apparently attempted to enter the States through another airport. It never went to court.

Fear kept me from applying for citizenship — while my mom and dad and grandma and sister naturalized shortly after we were eligible in 2014, I hung onto my Filipino passport, telling others that I preferred the foreign status for residency and grant applications that I never applied to, for fear of being exposed again.

Towards the end of Lingua Franca, Alex roleplays a lonely drifter named Josh and Olivia plays along as a stranger named Isabel (even in pretending, they can only be themselves). On the dance floor, Alex perpetuates the myth with a proposal and later doubles down on the fantasy by describing the children they’ll have together, even if he claims he knows it can’t be, but that it’ll be all right — they can continue dreaming into the night.

But the lies and pain accumulate into a heartbreaking confession of duplicity at the climax of the film: what seem like necessary fictions fall apart in the cold light of day. The final shots we see of Olivia confronting Alex for his misgivings land on a close-up of a Philippine passport; once stolen, it can’t be returned. Perhaps it was naive to think that idealism can exist without suffering, but it doesn’t work like that. Some things break and can’t be fixed.

It was the 2016 triple crown of Brexit and the respective elections of Trump and Duterte that drove me to take the plunge and apply. I was scared of facing even more fear, uncertain terms rendered even more uncertain. The usual three-month turnaround turned into nine before the new administration even took office, and it didn’t help that I lost my green card in Manila, maybe to be found and sold to some impostor.

La Union, where I probably lost my green card.

The replacement green card ($540) came seven months after I applied, and shortly after had to be surrendered to the State Department so I could get my naturalization certificate ($750), and in turn, my current U.S. passport ($110). I stopped getting stopped. I was directed to the faster line. The X ceased to appear on my face.

Still, there’s the spooky feeling that this security is fleeting, that the ground could shift from under us at any time. What we end up holding onto defines us. The film’s conclusion echoes a scene from its opening, with Olga calling Olivia to re-orient herself, tell her who and where she is. Lingua Franca ends with the suggestion that love can endure the pain of romance — but leaves it to us to wonder if someone will be there to pick up the phone.

This piece was inspired by Containing and Passing by the literary terrorist Jasmine Grace Wenzel. Her work can be found here:

Dean Colin Marcial is an international filmmaker in New York and Manila. His short films have been screened all over the world and have garnered more than 150,000 hits online. His first short, Sea Devil, is currently available on the Criterion Channel and his new film, Reminiscences of the Green Revolution, made its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. In 2010, he co-founded Calavera USA, an award-winning Brooklyn production company whose credits include All That I Am, Fishtail, and Yearbook. In 2017, he was a recipient of the Tribeca All Access Grant and the following year won the WarnerMedia First Generation Stories Grant. He was born in the Philippines, raised in Long Island, and graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.