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A Different Light

Known for the films she made with a young Tilda Swinton, Cynthia Beatt has long been a unique voice in the Berlin independent film scene. Now she and Tilda are reuniting to bring her Fiji film, which she calls ‘the epic, the one’ to arthouse screens.

When did you meet Tilda?

It was 1986. She had just made Caravaggio with Derek Jarman and he brought her to the Berlin Film Festival.

A friend, Klaus Wyborny, was looking for an actress to play a character in his film and I said he should meet Tilda. Klaus was a star of the underground and Tilda had only made this one film but she had such hingabe - total abandonment to the role. I thought she was extraordinary. When Klaus asked Tilda if she would like to play the part, she blushed a depth of pink I didn’t think was humanly possible. She was very young then.

Klaus’s film was partly set in Fiji so we all set off for the south seas. Tilda and I grew close and that was when I began to think about writing my own Fiji film with Tilda as the main character.

You already knew you wanted to do your Fiji film?

I’ve known forever that I wanted to do the Fiji film. For me this was always ‘the epic, the one’. It was to be about a woman travelling through the islands. Tilda and I started working on a script, but as I began to understand more about colonialism and how this attitude had been transferred into modern-day corporatism – I realised that I could not make a film where Fiji is seen through the eyes of a white woman.

Could you, as a white woman, make a film through the eyes of a Fijian character?

I realised that the solution is to make Fiji itself the main character. Anyone who comes in is just someone who moves in and out of Fiji.

And now you and Tilda are finally making the Fiji film?

Yes, although I’ve been working on it all this time. Thirty years. I kept stopping and starting. I had two children. I developed other projects. But Heart of Light was always the one.

The films of yours that I know follow a poetic structure. Is that how the Fiji film will work too?

It’s a poetic essay, if you define an essay as beginning with a question or a quest. There’s a framework, but it’s not strictly scripted. You follow the quest, but you also make detours.

Robert Louis Stevenson used to compare the Pacific people to the Highlanders with their clan system and their strong urge to determine their own fate

Kabara Island. Photo: Cynthia Beatt

What is your Fiji quest?

To show the importance of a group of islands in the Pacific and the dignity of the people who live there. It’s a weaving together of history and the hardship of daily life and the beauty of the place. When Robert Louis Stevenson went to live on Samoa he wrote how wonderful it was going to a place where people had never read Virgil and were not burdened by the history of the Roman Empire.

Robert Louis Stevenson always used to compare the Pacific people to the Highlanders, with their clan structure and their strong urge to determine their own fate, and in how courageous and generous they are.

It was like a gift to grow up among people like that, and I want to give something back. I don’t know what that is, but I’ll find out along the way.

I know you were brought up in Fiji from age ten till twenty, but what are your roots?

My mother was from Chicago, she was a painter. My father was British, born of Irish parents, he was a colonial police officer. They met during the War. We lived in Jamaica until I was ten and went to Britain only once in that time. When I was ten we left Jamaica and crossed the US on a train and got on a ship and went to Fiji.

Levuka, Ovalua Island. Photo: Cynthia Beatt

‘In the West there has been a tendency to think archipelagically, to focus on the parts and ignore the whole. Other cultures pay much more attention to that which connects than that which divides.’

John Gillis, Islands of the Mind:
How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World

Photo: Cynthia Beatt

I heard a story about the Planter’s Club in Savusavu where rule no.1 was ‘No Fijians or Indians’

What was your contact with the Fijians when you lived there?

They were the people of the land and we were a tiny minority. The schools and clubs were segregated, but I didn’t realize that as a child – as crazy as that sounds – partly because we had an open house and my parents had Fijian, Indian and Chinese friends.

I heard a story about The Planter’s Club in Savusavu where rule no.1 was ‘No Fijians or Indians’. Its patron was listed as the Governor of Fiji. When the Governor himself came and saw the sign, he said, ‘This is unconstitutional’. My father was involved in de-segregating one club in Lautoka. It took some pressure, but I was unaware of it. My generation has witnessed enormous change – hard to describe in a few words.

Did you go to school with Fijian kids?

I went to the Lautoka European School, behind our house. It was established for the children of expatriates who worked in the sugar mill. It was also attended by ‘part- Europeans’. ‘Part-European’ meant you were mixed, you were white plus something else. Now the Fijian term ‘kai loma’ or ‘in between’ is used.

When the plane is near Fiji and they say ‘We are going to be landing soon’, tears start to pour out of me

So you were other, an incomer; but also privileged, part of the colonial hierarchy.

Colonial officers became a new highest level of chiefs, and therefore we children were always treated in a certain way. So the question was ‘who or what are you carrying within yourself?’ You are carrying a certain white privilege, and it’s painful when, as an adult, you recognise that. On the other hand, your heart, your real heart is in those countries where you have been brought up as a child.

When the plane is near Fiji and they say ‘We are going to be landing soon’, tears start to pour out of me. I have friends brought up in Fiji who feel the same way. You are coming home, but then you are not Fijian, and that’s painful. But it’s also great, not to be anything. You can switch from one place to the next and be comfortable in your skin with whomever you meet. Of course there are other sorts of people who can do that too, but I have found it to be more common among people who have grown up in different places.

British Government’s Minister of State, Hon. John Dugdale with Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna Source: Fiji Govt Department of Information

Your truth is that you were formed by different people in a different culture under a different light

Does this paradoxical identity feature in the film?

The central narrator, after living in Fiji for a great part of her young life, comes back to a Britain where everyone just assumes that she’s British. She happened to live in an exotic place for a while and that’s it.

When people assume that about you, you also assume that you are just like everybody else. But as time goes by you realise that you can’t mute your truth. Your truth is that you were formed by different people in a different culture under a different light with different vegetation, different smells. What does that mean? That’s also the question of the film.

It’s quite common now to have dual or multiple identities. But for your generation far less common.

Actually it wasn’t that uncommon because already there had been a lot of people who had grown up in the colonies and returned to Europe. There are so many writers with this background: Orwell, Katherine Mansfield, Marguerite Duras, Doris Lessing, Michael Ondaatje and all those writers who grew up in Algeria during the French colonial period. Joe Strummer from The Clash whose dad was in the foreign service grew up in places like Turkey and Mexico.

You become very anti-nationalist with a background like that, very uncomfortable with racism and with white arrogance; sensitive to the undertones.

I love those unseen characters who create a space between what you see and what you hear

How did Fijians cope with racist attitudes?

One thing I’ve noticed with Fijians is that they are extremely tolerant. I’ve seen on their faces the knowledge that they are being talked down to by somebody and they don’t feel the need to make that person aware of it.

Fiji was near the end of the British Empire, so they did not by any means suffer the worst of colonialism. Western dogma about ‘primitive man’ was changing. After the Deed of Cession to Britain in 1874, slavery and blackbirding was curtailed and most Fijian land was protected by the British Crown.

From other would-be colonisers?

From other traders and plantation owners acquiring the best arable land on the cheap. People moved there from Europe and Australia to plant cotton and use cheap labour. Sir Arthur Gordon the former Governor-General of Fiji took up the idea of setting up the National Land Trust Board in the 1930’s. One of his aims was to preserve native land for the Fijians.

Cynthia with Adi Vilimaina Katonivere who plays a role in Heart of Light.
Photo: Frangipani Beatt

Will this history figure in Heart of Light?

Yes it will. It’s woven into the journey through the islands. I’m not Fijian and a Fijian would make a completely different film so I have to maintain a character who at some level acknowledges this, and that’s the narrator – someone who is inside the film but also outside of it. I love those unseen characters who create a space between what you see and what you hear because it leaves room for the viewer to navigate the film with their own imagination.

A poem is made so you can inhabit the space constructed by the poem. Your films seem to be made that way too.

I like that, ‘so you can inhabit the space’. I think it’s insulting for the audience when they are told everything. It becomes so one-dimensional.

I have a credo of sorts for my work, adapted from something Matisse said about painting. I am speaking of a mysterious, expressive quality : ‘The force of this expression will be evident, not as something apart from or only presented by form, but rather as feeling which is embodied into the very fibre of form itself’.

I recently found an old script for The Party - Nature Morte, where Elfi Mikesch, the cinematographer, had drawn diagrams of camera movements on it. She had drawn how the camera was going to flow in and out of the conversations and the dramas and the songs and the people coming into and leaving the party. The form of that film was all in the camera movements.

The two films you made with Tilda about the Berlin Wall: Cycling the Frame, where she cycles round the Berlin Wall, and The Invisible Frame, where the wall has gone and she cycles the route where it had been... they are also shaped by movement. There’s a kinetic flow of life across lines, borders, walls. Then with The Party, you cross an invisible wall into a night-time world. And then when the film ends it’s as if that night-time world is melted into air, into thin air.

Yes, when the light breaks.

What is the poem that one of the actors speaks as dawn is coming up?

It’s taken from a tiny little book that a friend of mine gave me called The Night. He wrote and published it himself. It’s an existentialist roaming through the night, and when the dawn comes and the light appears, it all vanishes.

The Party was selected in Sight & Sound’s The Female Gaze: 100 Overlooked Films Directed by Women. Why do films by women directors get overlooked?

It’s down to the way that women directors tell stories differently. Things are changing, women directors are less overlooked now.

Where did you get the idea for The Party?

From The Wild Party, a poem of the Jazz Age written by Joseph Moncure March. It’s about this couple, Queenie and Burrs, who quarrel and decide to have a party. The beginning goes something like this:

Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
Grey eyes. Lips like coals aglow.
Her face was a tinted mask of snow.
Her legs were built to drive men mad.
And she did.
She would skid.
But sooner or later they bored her:
Sixteen a year was her order.

The Party - Nature Morte, cinematographer Elfi Mikesch


‘When I saw the film again, I thought it was a film about touch and about the desire to touch others. There are so many shots of hands and so many editing compositions of hands to hands...’

Nan Goldin in conversation with Cynthia Beatt for the International Forum, Berlin Film Festival

I love the way you are not scared of having your characters recite poetry. Or roam around with the dreamy drunkenness of a real party.

Well it was a bit like a real party. It was shot over two weeks and I never knew from one day to the next how many would be coming. I’d be on the phone to friends saying ‘Hey can you come round and just be part of the scene?’ We had this famous Fassbinder actor and another from the Schaubühne, we had singers and a piano player and the whole thing just evolved as it went along.

I have never seen Tilda Swinton so incandescent as in that film.

With Tilda, it’s always an exchange. I offer her something, and she offers something back and it’s always interesting. That’s why I’m so looking forward to working with her on Heart of Light.

Tilda Swinton in The Invisible Frame.



Susan Irvine

Susannah Baker-Smith