Days after my episode of “Under The Banner of Heaven” premiered, I received a private message on Twitter from a Mormon consultant on the show though we never managed to connect during the shoot. “I just wanted you to know how beautiful your episode turned out. The response here in Utah has been epic. Every day I’m receiving texts from ex-Mormons (and some current LDS) who absolutely loved it. So many people are resonating with how beautifully you and Andrew [Garfield] captured the pain of a faith crisis.”
The response feels both remarkable and especially rewarding to me, who is neither Mormon nor born and raised in Utah (or the U.S., for that matter). I was born (and grew up) in the Philippines, the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia. I had a Catholic education from kindergarten to college. As a grade-schooler, I had a phase of being so devout that for years I was a mass server at the school chapel every morning.
What did I know of Mormonism?
Practically nothing. Yet that only emboldened me to take the plunge, after showrunner (and Oscar-winning screenwriter) Dustin Lance Black took a chance on me for what would become the first episode of television I’d direct.
Since I started making films, I’ve always thought that cinema is a gesture of empathetic imagination. In my episode – “Revelation”, the series’ penultimate installment — Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) finds the erosion of his faith escalating, culminating in the darkest night of his soul. It’s a turning point for the series, transcending the noir pleasures of its true-crime origins to become a “spiritual thriller.”
In truth, Pyre’s spiritual crisis isn’t so alien to me. I “got” Pyre and understood him deep in my bones, as his ambivalence towards his faith mounts the more intimately he learns about its history, more fraught and unsettling than he was taught to believe. My relationship with Catholicism unraveled in a similar manner (the long version of which is a tale for another day). I’ve made a film about this unraveling in “Apparition,” where a Filipino nun questions the adequacy of prayer amidst political turbulence during the Marcos dictatorship in the ‘70s.
My radical idea is that, in the context of the industry push for diversity and representation, minorities are boxed in to tell stories only about our respective communities. But Lance and the producers of ‘Banner’ took a chance on me, despite my very different background, because my dramatic sensibility and visual aesthetic as an auteur aligned with their vision for ‘Banner.’
What specific thing then do I bring to the table? I’ve made three independent features that center on introspective characters who exist precariously on the margins, in some way disempowered by the sociopolitical forces of their milieus.
Taking on Banner, I’ve infused my episode with a sensitivity toward those who’ve ever felt displaced (like the protagonist in my latest feature “Lingua Franca,” though her dislocation is more political than spiritual, as it is in Banner). My episode cultivates empathy for characters stuck in spiritual limbo, eliciting some of the most vulnerable, human and emotional performances from Andrew Garfield and Sam Worthington, who have incidentally played men with either superpowers or extraordinary abilities.
I did all that as a Filipina auteur who, through three bold dramatic features, has developed a boundless capacity for empathy for humanity in all its glories and foibles. I set out to prove that I’m as capable and gifted at telling stories about my community as about lives and experiences markedly different from my own. It’s the logical next step for the industry to take the push for diversity and representation to a new phase.
Isabel Sandoval is a Filipina filmmaker and actress best known for directing “Lingua Franca.” Most recently, she directed an episode of “Under the Banner of Heaven” for FX.