Some of humanity’s most creative works come from an ‘outside’ perspective. Cíntia Taylor is one of those talented outsiders who moves fluidly between worlds while examining the spaces between them.
“If you’re not the default, you… need support.”
Your Hair is Cute (film)
Cíntia: If you don’t have that sense of belonging, it’s painful. It’s physically and mentally painful. And I think it took me all these years, you know I’m now 41, it took me all these years to finally realize that, you know, home is where I am. It’s where I anchor myself to be. And it’s an emotional state rather than a physical state.
Brian: Hey, y’all I’m Brian Pagán. And this is episode 11 of MindFolk: human creativity and mindful innovation, in a podcast. In this episode, I’m speaking with Cíntia Taylor: journalist, copywriter, content strategist, screenwriter, and filmmaker. She and I have worked together on plays and digital products; and Cíntia is my writing mentor, as well as the editor of my first book, The Creative Empathy Field Guide.
This is an episode about stories, identity, human connection, and what home really means. And like any great story, this conversation taught me some unexpected things about myself. I even get the tables turned on me at the end! So our curtain opens on Cíntia elucidating how she was able to create such a natural, organic relationship between the two main characters in her latest film: Clinch..
Cíntia: I did set up the goal for myself to have a lot of improv in this film. That was also one of the reasons why I also got Yuval in, because he’s not really an actor. He does , you know, fight choreography and that kind of thing. And he’ll be a stuntman for that, but he’s not an actor. And so yes, it was from the very beginning.
I just wanted to set out a challenge to direct a film with improv and with non-actors. I mean, of course I have Amélie, who is amazing at what she does. And so she can always take a scene and bring the scene to where I need to be. So what we did is: I wrote a script.
I wrote like some dialogue in the script, but I told him not to learn the lines, but to just learn key things like key messages. Like, ‘I need you to mention this and this and this in the dialogue, and you start the scene at this point, and you end the scene at this point.’ What happens in between is up to you. And so so yes, that scene specifically when they are eating the noodles and watching fights and so on.
I think that scene, I think I have, like, I think we shot it for like almost half an hour… from different angles. And every time they would start a new conversation, and sometimes I’d be like, I would just, you know, would always continue filming. Cause that’s one thing like , we saw them like, don’t believe character, just stay in character.
Even if I’m talking to you, just stay there, because it just also moments when, if I’m talking to an actor, the camera might capture a nice listening shot of the character. And and so I would just come in and just throw some things like: ‘can you ask him this again?’ Or ‘can you, can you just talk about something different?’ and so on. So, but yeah, it was all them. Yeah.
Brian: That’s amazing! That was my favorite scene, I think was the one where they’re sitting, watching the fights and eating noodles together. There was such beautiful chemistry between the two of them.
Cíntia: I love that scene too. I think also also on paper, I was one of my favorite scenes.
I think Amélie, when she first read that script, I think she also loved that scene. And there were of course variations to the scene, but I think it’s the first moment in that film that we see this character putting her guard down a bit and allowing herself to be a bit more, not even vulnerable, but just to be a bit happy.
And and, and yeah, and I think it’s just a beautiful scene in that sense. Yeah.
Brian: What was the biggest, let’s say, difference or the biggest thing that you had to learn, going from writing and directing something that’s totally scripted to writing and directing what you mentioned now as being more improv?
Cíntia: I think at the same time that I want to give space for every single member of the crew and the cast to, to give their input and to bring themselves into the project.
I do give that space. At the same time, I have a very clear vision. I know exactly what I want to get out of things in film. In theater, it’s different. In theater, I have the time to build it up so I can go into it like, ‘Hmm. I don’t know. We’ll see.’ But in film, because time is a luxury, you really need to know.
And it’s funny because I’ve had conversations with Amélie Onzon about the way I direct. And she says, ‘Oh, you’re so different from other directors because you know exactly -you’re so precise in what you want.’ But at the same time, I give them also space. You know, like…
Even with my creative team: I tell them, ‘okay, this is my vision; this is the idea that I have.’ And I know that a lot of people feel like, ‘Oh, if the director already knows, we just execute it.’ But I don’t like ‘executor’s.’ I like, and I think it comes from theater where you just build things together; I really like that involvement of everyone in my crew.
So when I talk to potential crew members, I immediately want to hear them already coming up with ideas and think of ‘oh, but maybe we can go there, and maybe we can try this.’ Of course, in line with the vision, not something completely different. I mean, if they go a completely different direction, then they’re not the right crew member for that particular project. But just but yeah, I do give that freedom within, you know, the vision that I want.
So to me, what’s important is that we all are in tune with the vision. And then from there on, we build on each other’s strengths and each other’s ideas. And so, yeah, I mean the script is just a base. It’s just one, one step into a larger process and, you know, the story that it’s… that this… The story that I even started out thinking is no longer the story of the script.
There are so many versions of that script then. And what you shoot is a different version of what you go… when you go into post it’s a completely different version. We have had like six versions of the edit of this film. So you’re always recreating.
Brian: What’s the biggest challenge in working this way?
Cíntia: Well, I, I can only talk about my own challenge, of course. And to me it was the fact that there’s so many options.
(Yeah) I mean, if I just have executor’s, they’ll just do exactly what I say first. If I have people who think with me, they will be like, ‘Oh, you can do that, but I just got an idea: we can also do that. And I’m like, ‘this also sounds cool, but is it, is it in line with what we’re doing?’ And so on…
And yeah, if I have like lots of options, it’s like, you know, a child in a, how do you call it in the candy shop? I have everything, right. And so, so hard to then make a choice because everything is beautiful. Everything is amazing.
You didn’t ask that, but I’m just going to say it: for this film, the way I tackled that was to make sure… and actually is with every, with every, every project that I do…
I always come back to what is… What is the film about? Who is talking? Whose story is this?
And it’s her story. So everything about this film is done through her. It’s about her. So the color is about the way she sees the world. The music is about the way she communicates and her emotions. The poster! That thing behind me: it really is about, you know, it’s, it’s torn.
It’s like this idea of a torn poster. It really is about her soul. And and this was not even my idea. It was Martin who did, who did the poster. He came up with it after we spoke about it. And I told him I wanted it to come from her, from within her. And and then it was like, okay. And he came up with this idea.
I was like, yes, exactly. So this is what I mean, this is a good example of collaboration where I give a vision and then… but at the same time, do give the space for those who are good at their craft, much better than I am to explore and come back to me with something that, I mean, I probably wouldn’t never have arrived here.
You know, same thing I would not ever have arrived at the music that Nikolai composed or the sound design that Megan designed.
Brian: So just… just to shift gears slightly: I’m curious about your… some of your other films, especially Your Hair is Cute. This is a film we’ve spoken about before. Why did you make Your Hair is Cute?
Cíntia: Yeah. Why? It’s funny because sometimes you only get the right answers at a later stage. And I didn’t realize why I was making Your Hair is Cute. And Your Hair is Cute, you know, is a monologue about you know, the subtleties of everyday racism.
And it’s based on an episode that happened to me. So I’m at the airport and this American lady in her fifties, sixties, maybe… she’s just, she’s sitting quite far from me. And I get up to leave and she just calls me from across the room. It’s like, “excuse me, excuse me. Excuse me!” And I’m like, ‘okay. I just like, what did I do wrong?’
And I just look at the lady and she’s like, “your hair is cute.” And she just continues eating her panini whatever she was doing. And I was like, “Okay, thank you.” So it was a very awkward moment to me. It was not the first time that that happened. Not in this awkward manner, but throughout my life, I constantly was told, (you know) how my hair was kinky and cutie and this and that, or how my skin tone was different.
And I guess that was kind of almost like, you know, the last drop. Yeah. I, I need to say something about this. And the whole thing was, I mean, I, I grew up a mixed race and I grew up in very white environments where not only was I told constantly how different I was from everyone else.
I was born in Angola. My parents are Angolan, and there is a difference in culture. Even though when Angola used to be part of Portugal, it was colonized by Portugal, where I grew up.
It was still a difference of culture. And so, you know, I… there were things about Portuguese culture that I wasn’t aware of, even though I had been living there since I was two and a half years old. Because my parents weren’t aware of that.
And so, you know so I was always told very specifically how different I was from everyone else. And when you were a child, you just want to belong. You don’t want to be different. Now I want to be different. But when you’re a child, you just want to be exactly like anyone else.
And it’s quite sad in a way when I think back, you know, I remember crying myself to sleep wishing (you know) that I was blonde with blue eyes. Because if I was blonde with blue eyes, I would be treated normally. Maybe I would have more friends. Maybe people would not (you know), refuse to play with me and so on. And and so that stays with you and you don’t realize how deep it is in you.
And sometimes you just know there’s a little trigger and I think. That comment from that lady at that point in my life was a trigger. The whole idea of well… And I used Your Hair is Cute also because of the political connotations that African hair has.
Where you’ve seen throughout the years, especially black, women being forced to straighten their hair using relaxers that are just so damaging to one’s health. You know, I’ve countless stories in my family of women who burned their scalp, trying to relax their hair because that’s how you should do. You should have straight hair, not (you know) curly hair. That’s kinky (you know) that’s exotic.
Even think about the words that are used in shampoo bottles, talking about ‘taming your kinky hair.’ Taming? You do that with wild beasts; you don’t do that to hair and to people.
And to me, it’s like, I did this film for white people. Actually, it was because black people know. And it was not until I made the film that I realized that it was a far more universal feeling.
You know, when Déborah, the actress who does the film; when she read the monologue, she started crying, saying, “well, this is exactly what I feel. This is exactly what I mean.” And for the first time I realized like, Oh, hang on, indeed. I am not the problem. It’s… The world is the problem. I am not.
Brian: How does that feel for you seeing her cry, reading your words?
Cíntia: Well, I think actually seeing someone cry over something that I cry to, it it just brings, you know, in a in a wicked way, some comfort. Because it’s… I’m not alone in this. And there’s a re… Okay, now I have a reason to make this film. Because I also want to approach those young girls who were, who are now crying bed that they want to be blonde and (have) blue eyes.
No! It’s… No, you shouldn’t! You don’t have to, because the problem is not in you, it’s in them. And the rest of the world who still needs to understand that it’s what you… who you are is perfectly beautiful.
So, yeah, I actually, I even have at the end of the film something like this: “To do all the girls in the world, you are beautiful.” I guess it was me talking to little Cíntia.
Brian: Why do you create art?
Cíntia: I don’t know, to be honest, I just need means to express myself, I suppose. You know, I… I started out as a journalist and I really thought that I had become a journalist because I just wanted to make the world a better place and blah, blah, blah.
But I found myself and… Bear in mind: when I, when I joined journalism school, I thought I would become a war reporter. And I never did that and I never felt the need to do that because once I started working in journalism, still in my studies, I realized that it were the small stories that I enjoyed telling the most. Just the little quirkiness or, you know, the little inspiring stories, everyday things, no big stuff.
And I still do, and I still do, and I… So it was always about story even when I was as a young girl. And then the moment I started talking, I started telling stories and I would just tell stories to everyone.
So it was always about story, I guess. And I suppose that the whole point is just to, you know, as it was, when I was a kid was to, to feel a bit less lonely that I was part of something.
And I guess that is still the case today is just. Just like with Your Hair is Cute, (it) was about… i, I expressed something that I felt, and I felt less lonely because I found a bit of my tribe. There other people like me in the world. And I still do the same with every project that I do, may it be in film, may it be in theater. It’s still journalism.
And it’s just, yeah. Telling short stories, sharing them, trying to understand, you know, our humanity and feeling less lonely.
Brian: That’s beautiful. I love that. I mean, that’s, yeah…
I couldn’t think of a greater purpose to create art than to bring people together. I mean, it’s wonderful.
Cíntia: I mean, I also teach. I teach documentary narratives and ethics at SAE, and I love that role. I love that role of being able to steer people into the direction they want to go. One of the things that I’ve always loved about journalism was listening to people’s stories. And that’s what I also do with these students. You know, I, I listen to their stories and then I just help them share them.
Brian: I’m just wondering, is there maybe one moment that inspired you particularly?
Cíntia: No, it’s it’s not one moment. It’s not just one person. It’s the full package, you know. It’s every… Every year there’s always someone there that just surprises me, someone who teaches me something new and not necessarily about design, but just a new perspective about life.
So that’s, that’s amazing. I’m also very curious. I’m someone who always needs to learn, and I’m always looking out for different ideas about the world in life and, you know, and challenges to my own conceptions. So yeah, in that sense, it’s amazing to always (you know) be faced with different people who have different perspectives and can challenge you.
Brian: What’s the most surprising of those lessons?
Cíntia: I wouldn’t say it’s surprising. It’s almost like a confirmation. Because I’m… I work with people from all over the world with different age groups and so on. And it’s just this confirmation that in the end, we’re just all the same. So many similarities! And this is not… Now what I’m going to say has nothing to do with, with the Master’s, but just to give a very clear example.
I talk about all my, you know, issues growing up in a white world. And the people who understand me the most are people who sort of look like me and who have the same experience, but in different parts of the world. And there two people here in the Netherlands that… One was born here in the Netherlands and the other one was born in Texas.
And I was born in Angola, grew up in Portugal, and the three of us share the exact same experience, the exact same fears and securities… which are very different from darker skinned people, what really black people. We’re somewhere in the middle. And I think just being in contact with so many different people, even though sometimes we have different ideas, you know…
It just reinforces this whole idea that we are pretty much the same, you know. It’s a passport or a different year that you were born in. But yeah, we don’t… Yeah, we’re kind of like the same… the same… how do you say tissue.
Brian: Cut from the same cloth as it were?
Cíntia: Yeah, that’s it.
Brian: You’ve talked about a little bit about this concept of belonging as a child. You only want to belong and that’s your biggest priority. You know, you just want to feel like you’re part of something.
And you’ve spoken now about a couple of examples of you connecting with other people through your work, in the sense that you’ve connected with them and this feeling of otherness in a way that mixed race people feel. And I’m wondering…
I’m assuming here because I’m myself a mixed race as well. And maybe I’m projecting a little bit of my experience, but like, for me, like… It… I don’t feel…
Because I’m also like a bit multinational, whatever. So I don’t, I don’t feel white, but I also don’t feel Puerto Rican. Like my family’s from Puerto Rico. I don’t feel like I’m from… I was born in Puerto Rico, but I didn’t grow up there.
So I don’t speak Spanish and I don’t have a lot of the culture and I feel a lot of insecurity and shame around this. But also I don’t feel totally American. I also don’t feel Dutch even though, you know, I’ve lived in The Netherlands already for almost 20 years now.
And for me, I feel the most connected with people like you, who are almost the outsiders. Like as if we…
The outsiders is our tribe. And I’m wondering what, what, what that sort of feels like for you.
Cíntia: It’s exactly the same. It’s exactly the same. I mean, I’ve always felt a bit weird about people… When people would talk… People who are, for example…
People who are here in the Netherlands and they would say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go this weekend, back home,’ meaning that they were from another country. They would go back to the country for the weekend.
And this whole concept of home as a geographical place is so foreign to me. Because it’s like: Where is home? I don’t have that feeling of belonging to a country, to a nation. I don’t have that.
And I mean, I will say like, you know, people always say, ‘Oh, for which football, as in soccer, which team do you support?’ Yeah, I will go for the Portuguese. And I will have something in my chest, if I hear the Portuguese anthem. I mean, I did live there for 24 years or so.
So it’s still, you know, part of me, I, but it’s not a country that I, that I really call home. I took a lot of its culture. I have wonderful friends and family there. But it’s not home. There was a reason why I left the country as well, because I didn’t feel at home. And now even less because I’ve also grown so much as a person outside the country. Every time I go back to the country, I’m like, ‘Oh, you don’t belong here.’
And it’s not that I… It’s not that I belong to the Netherlands. I’m definitely not Dutch either. But at least here, it’s very clear there I’m a foreigner. It’s very clear that I am not from here, right. While in Portugal, they gave me the passport and still they call me different.
“You’re not really Portuguese. Are you?” And you know, that’s the whole question: “where are you really from?” That kind of thing.
And yeah, I do find myself really, you know, more connected to those people then. I mean, I’m exactly like you, I, I go to the black community and I feel like a fraud. I totally feel like a fraud.
It’s also (that) I feel like a fraud and I feel guilt because I have black blood. I acknowledge my black blood! But I was never put down because of it. I mean, yeah, there were little things like comments on my skin tone and my hair. Because I had a white father and a white family that were in positions that could take me, I was given good education.
As far as I’m aware, I was never denied a job because you know, of my skin tone. So I’m so privileged. I am so privileged despite the little pains that have caused me throughout the years. I am super privileged in comparison to so many other people. And in the black community, you see that some people just, you know…
Going to black communities in Portugal was amazing how everyone spoke this slang. And people talked about food I have never heard of. I’ve never tried that food even. And because my parents made sure that, you know, I would try to fit in, in the Portuguese society as much as possible. So I do have some influences, but they didn’t expose me to my Angolan roots that much.
So I always felt like a bit of a fraud. Even like, talking about blackness, and so on, I feel like, “is it really my place to do so?” But I know: I walk into a party full of white people and I know that I will be noticed. I know people will look at me differently and I see the eyes. I see the looks. But I’m also, I mean, if I go to a black people’s party, it’s going to be the same.
It’s a different thing though, but it’s still, it’s like I don’t belong anywhere. (Yeah)
Brian: Do you notice that when you walk around outside? The looks?
Cíntia: Well, it depends on where you are. Yeah. Okay. Fair enough. Yeah. It depends on where you are and which part of the world you are or in which town or… Yeah, I do.
I do. There’s something that also I don’t know if you have that, but I’ve spoken to other black people and that, and that is something that then I’m seen as black. In the white environment, if someone of color or mixed walks in, we exchange looks, as in, ‘I see you. I’ve got your back.’ And there’s some that happens and I cannot explain what it is.
It’s just like, ‘I see you. I appreciate you. You’re good.’
We know that we are the only ones that we’re different. We know we’re different. It’s not our world per se, in that sense, if you understand what I mean.
Brian: I do.
Cíntia: And there you feel a connection of ‘yeah, we’re not really white.’ It doesn’t matter what you are. We’re not really white.
Brian: Do you have the same kind of exchange with a white person at a black party?
Cíntia: I don’t think even white people know about the look!
We might be spilling our secrets here.
I really thought it was something in me. Like, ‘well, maybe it’s me.’ You know? Again, one of those things. And then I started talking to other people, like, “does this happen to you too? Do you like share a look?” And everyone kept saying, “Yes, I do. Yes, I do.”
If you’re not the default, you kind of need support.
Brian: “If you’re not the default.” I think this is really interesting! And I think that’s kind of the point.
Shit! There’s a lot for me to think about now!
Cíntia: We’re debunking the whole meaning of life now. But yeah, I think belonging is crucial. I mean…
Brené Brown talks about that a lot: sense of belonging. And I love Brené Brown.
Brené Brown literally saved my life. So you know how much I love her, we’ve spoken about it. And I think if you don’t have that sense of belonging, It’s painful, it’s physically and mentally painful.
And I think it took me all these years. You know, I’m now 41. It took me all these years to finally realize that home is where I am. It’s where I anchor myself to be. And it’s an emotional state rather than a physical state.
And so I choose home now. I choose home by choosing who my family is, my extended family.
We live in a world that is just full of categories and boxes that you must fill in. And you must obey. And if you don’t, you’re just immediately out. You know? And that could be your gender, your skin color, but it could also just be the way you think, the way you face the world.
And if it’s not immediately one of those categories, you’re immediately out. Right? And by being immediately out again, you are different from anyone else and you don’t belong.
Brian: I’m wondering if there’s any of this in Clinch at all.
Cíntia: I think it’s present throughout. I think who I am as a person just immediately translates into my artistic work. We’re talking about this woman who is trying to figure out a way back to herself. She’s been through trauma, a traumatic event. And she’s fighting to try to get back to who she was before that.
But what she needs to realize is that there is no going back. There’s only moving forward. And so she needs to take that traumatic event, wrap it around, and use it as a propeller to move her forward and accept that that event happened. And it doesn’t define her as a person, but it now is part of her life story.
This is who you are now. You’ve been touched. You’ve been changed. That’s okay. And I think that’s also part of belonging that acceptance of who you are and what happened to you. You know?
Brian: What’s your biggest challenge right now?
Cíntia: There were times that I was my biggest challenge. My lack of confidence was my biggest challenge. But that’s not the case now.
And I’ve also… I think you need time to mature your voice as an artist and to understand what you want to say. And I’ve done that. I know where I want to go. I know the stories I want to tell. It’s just a matter of having time to write them down and to make them happen.
Brian: How did you do that?
Cíntia: It’s not the Lord of the rings or the Lord of the artist’s voice… It’s just something that happens naturally. And you need to explore. And I think you need to be open to explore and to even be vulnerable.
So, yeah, it was all about really going back to analyzing patterns. And then you see there’s something in psychology called Transactional Analysis. It’s funny because it has a very film and theater language because they talk about “scripts.”
They say that, basically, in life we make scripts. And these scripts are based on these early decisions that we make. That’s why you see often, for example, it’s a very basic example, but children who are exposed to violence, they will often then associate themselves in a relationship which has that violence.
So if a child saw domestic violence against the mother, if that child is a woman, the likelihood of this woman finding a partner who is as violent towards her is quite high, in comparison to children who were not exposed to that same violence. And that violence will define the way this person sees themselves.
You know? And I say violence, it’s an extreme example, but there are other examples of course. But then they’ll say that, ‘well, I’m bad’ or ‘I am good and world is bad,’ or ‘I deserve this, because I’m not worthy enough.’
And so everything you do is to just prove that script, right? So you will set yourself to very high standards so you fail. And because you failed, it just proves ‘actually, see, I’m not good enough.’ Those little factors.
And if you start analyzing yourself, and you do the work, you uncover those. And then, the moment you know them, it’s about being alert and trying to overcome that.
Oh, we went deep now!
Brian: I love that, yeah!. Thank you for coming with me on this journey!
I gotta tell you: when you said the word “fraud” earlier, it was like, you punched me right in the gut, you know? Like, I really felt it in my chest here. And I almost cried, because you articulated something that I’ve been feeling like on the tip of my tongue… basically for my entire life.
And I never broke it down in the way that you did, talking about feeling like a fraud and feeling guilty about… misappropriating this culture .Like I’m not worthy of this.
I can’t… you know?
Cíntia: You also take the, that feeling of fraud to your work.
Brian: Yeah, I think so. I can tell from myself that I am quite obsessed, at least on a subconscious level, about how people think of my work and what people think.
And, if people praise my work, then I feel good about myself. Like I’ve earned the right to feel worthy. But only temporarily of course, because then the next time I have to do it all over again. I mean, it’s just incredibly unhealthy. (nervous laughter)
Cíntia: It’s incredibly unhealthy, but it is a pattern. And I, I mean, I, I tried to fight against it, but I also have the same.
And I do find this a lot among people who have a hard time with understanding where they belong. And with people who are from multiple cultures or ethnicities, I had so many issues even with claiming to be an artist. What is an artist, exactly?
How do you claim that word for yourself? Do I deserve to be called an artist and to call myself an artist?
What have I contributed to the art world to deserve the honor of being called an artist? You know, I have had such difficulties with that word. And now I say it. But there’s still a part of me that feels a bit like a bit cringy. I didn’t go to art school. I don’t hang out with the cool arts people.
There’s a bunch of ideas of what artists do and their lifestyle that I don’t have, and I don’t comply with. And it’s like again an outsider. You see? I keep on putting myself into positions that I remain an outsider.
Brian: I love it. Thank you so much, Cíntia!
Cíntia: Thank you!
Brian: I always love learning and growing with you, Cíntia! Thank you so much.
And for y’all listening, what did Cíntia’s stories show you about yourself? Let me know with an email or voice message via https://mindfolkpod.com, or get in touch on Twitter and Instagram at @mindfolkpod.
Keep choosing love, dear one!