Lingua Franca

Lingua Franca

Some years ago, Jennicet Gutierrez called out Obama at an event featuring many LGBTQ citizens. As an undocumented trans woman, she was appalled at his hypocrisy. At the time, over 70 trans women were being held in men's immigrant detention center cells, and Obama had already earned the title deporter-in-chief. Obama scolded Gutierrez for her interruption, and the media latched on and followed suit. But Gutierrez was right to do what she did. Those who knew how to read through the lies of mainstream media saw the truth.

Trump escalated Obama's anti-immigrant rhetoric to openly fascist, white nationalist status, rather than the backdoor kind favored by Democrats. During the early stages of the ongoing pandemic, one of the first people to die of COVID in an ICE detention center was a trans woman, and many trans people in these migrant concentration camps are facing horrific conditions exacerbated by the transphobic carceral system. Cis immigrants of any nation who end up in the hands of ICE face extreme cruelty and unlivable conditions; trans people get a little lagniappe horror.

Knowing this serves to make the atmosphere crafted by the news reports and Trumpist hate-mongering in Lingua Franca even more disturbing. Sandoval weaves reality into this fictitious but still true story in a way that, when combined with the up-close-and-personal cinematography, allows you to feel a bit of the repressive fear her character experiences. Without living it truly, of course, it's impossible to know it completely, but even the shadow of it we share is enough. There is a mini-monologue late in the film where she describes the justified paranoia she experiences all day every day, and though it is effective, it's not really necessary. Her filmmaking skills did better work than the dialogue in that moment ever could.

What Olivia experiences is a double-closet. She can't hide her nationality or her womanhood, both of which expose her to hate and violence on their own, nor can she avoid being working class, which is defined as being exploited. But her undocumented status and her transness are kept out of sight for most of the world. Being undocumented is something she could possibly rectify, but being trans is immutable. It doesn't make being closeted on either account less overwhelming, terrifying, anxiety-inducing, or traumatic. It makes it worse.

This circumstance of being double-closeted informs her behavior in a way that appears to give her both tunnel-vision and insight. Though she engages romantically and sexually with Alex, there is deep hesitation even in the most intimate moments between them. Her feelings are superseded by her need for a green card, and that puts up unspoken, unseen, yet still palpable barriers between them even before Alex screws up. But it's the insight she has earned through her journey that informs her choice to stop before she gets in too deep; she recognizes red flags that a million women in film missed and learned from the hard way. It is refreshing to see someone actually take heed; it does not lessen the drama, the emotion, the conflict. It acknowledges Olivia's emotional intelligence, giving a satisfying depth and competence to her character that could easily have been lost in the vulnerable moments where she weeps from the built up terror and desire or her driving need for someone to help her become a citizen.

Those intimate moments are shot and acted in a way that manages to elevate both Olivia and Alex as people. His tenderness, her beauty, his passion, her sexual being, his sexual being, her trans body, her fears and hopes, his wild romanticism all mingle within the sex scenes, fantasies, and romantic moments, defying stereotypes, misrepresentations, and bigotry in favor of something real, painful, and sensual. To see a trans woman playing a trans woman, experiencing sexual pleasures that do not objectify her, do not turn her into a joke, do not focus on the vestiges of her past self, do not reduce her to merely trans, to see a trans woman playing a trans woman written and directed by a trans woman make a movie that isn't The Danish Girl or even Tangerine but something sincere and serious is something I honestly did not expect of any movie. And every one of those moments is crafted with an eye toward composition, lighting, and scenery; mirror images, voiceovers, cityscapes, bloody backgrounds, welling scores, and a camera that worships trans bodies make this a moving experience.

Even though Alex is shown to be deceptive and making bad decisions, the film does not bear the kind of heavy judgment for him that one might expect. It's not a bad thing, in this case. It frames his mistakes and his desires and his humanity through those mistakes, his past mistakes, and his good intentions. Olivia is right to see his acts of theft and lying as red flags, but Alex is shown to be someone who simply does not know how to be the good person he wants to be. The compassion for him shown in the film does not excuse his transgressions; it simply contextualizes them. This is the vital facet: he is not forgiven, nor rewarded, nor shown to be right, nor justified in any way. He's human; he does bad things and good things. But the good things do not erase the bad things. He still pays for them (and not in an oppressive, bourgeois way).

What is layered into Alex's bad decisions is not just his addiction, though it plays a role, but his insensitivities and patronizing assumptions. One could argue this is a relic of being raised in a white and/or male supremacist society, and it's not wrong to see it that way. But indoctrination does not render us incapable of growth, change, or making the right decision. It's a cocktail of factors along with the aforementioned: immaturity, desperation, infatuation, a desire to do the right thing while not knowing how, naivete, and more all play into it. Alex isn't simply a vessel for his race and gender, and that makes him not just a better character in a movie, but it also makes Olivia's desire for him make sense. She isn't attracted to his flaws and his understated arrogance, but to his vulnerable side and his body (and that latter is where I stop understanding, but I get that straight people exist; I just can't wrap my head around it).

But his mini-savior-complex and duplicity do call attention to the racial, gender, and citizen-status differences between them. He tries to understand her fears, and his compassion is commendable. But he approaches it without acknowledging her agency. He assumes he can save her, that he can protect her, that he can win her with a green card and an indifference to her transness. He does not consult her in the planning, only asking her to be part of his idea. He does not offer solidarity, but promises he can't live up to, built on lies and love-obscured dreams. The bourgeois media, culture, education, and so on that everyone in the U.S. is subjected to encourages this, and it infects white people, men, and cis people more often than those who face the violence of it more directly. Alex isn't an empty vessel for those bourgeois attitudes and thoughts, but his role in this narrative help illustrate how damaging they can be.

It's a cliche to call trans women brave, but that's usually tied to our coming out and existing. Sandoval exhibits a different kind of bravery here, an artistic and political one. Though she doesn't touch on the role of, say, imperialism in all this, though she doesn't make explicit the financial motivations for the violence she experiences, she still made a powerful statement on the oppression of trans women and the terrorization of immigrants that somehow got even worse in Trump's America. To make and release this film while that bourgeois scumbag was rallying the far-right into murderous rage is an act of courage that must be commended.

The conditions she portrayed that trans people, women, people of color, immigrants (undocumented and otherwise), and working class people face have not noticeably changed with the new regime. VP Harris literally told people in Central America last week not to come to the U.S., echoing Trump's vilest racist exhortations. Biden has not closed the concentration camps. And though both Biden and Harris have made superficial gestures of support, just days ago, their administration chose transphobic bigotry in the guise of religious freedom over actually living up to their performative gestures. Harris may have marched in a Pride parade, but she has never paid for the agony she inflicted on trans inmates in California. Biden has done nothing to fight against the wave of right-wing think tank-borne anti-trans laws (mostly targeting youth) that swept state legislatures this spring. Tangible support for immigrants, trans people, or any other oppressed group would displease his capitalist funders; he will never support our liberation. An added layer of horror has come about, however, as both Trump and Biden have seized on the pandemic to stir up anti-Asian racism and violence. Olivia's world did not get much easier.

If there's any major flaw in this film, it's that it didn't contextualize what she was experiencing in a more political, class conscious way. It calls for empathy, compassion, understanding, but without an understanding of class, it risks failing to encourage solidarity as strongly as it could have. It relies on the viewer's decency, and for many, that would work. But exploitation and oppression puts a lot of pressure and pain on working class people, and it's hard for many to act on the compassion they feel. Making it clear how all of this hurts them, how fighting it would benefit them, is the surest way to draw them in. Just because someone cares doesn't mean they know how or have the spoons to do something about it; making them see that it would uplift them as well will put a fire in people. And in the end, we need more solidarity than anything else. It's what will unite us against our common enemies.

Still, this film illuminates the experience of an undocumented trans immigrant, a feat worth celebrating in a world where even one of those identities would be enough to get this film buried, hidden from sight. It's clear that this was a personal story in many ways, regardless of its biographical accuracy. That doesn't always leave room for a rallying cry, especially if that rallying cry might feel like a capitulation. This film is an achievement, one that reaches for more than pity, more than patronization. It awes me that this exists.

(I have failed to talk about Olga in this; she deserves more attention. But I've said quite a bit already. Remind me when I rewatch this to give her center stage.)

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