Svetlana Cvetko is renowned for her cinematography work on a list of critically acclaimed documentaries, including Oscar winner “Inside Job,” Oscar-nominated “Facing Fear,” the Cannes Official Selection “Red Army,” and the Sundance US Documentary Special Jury Prize-winning “Inequality For All.” “Show Me What You Got” marks her feature-length directorial debut. The short films she’s directed have won awards such as the Grand Prix du Public in Films de Femmes and Best Documentary at the LA Shorts Festival.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
SC: “Show Me What You Got” is about three young millennials who meet in Los Angeles and form a bond. Each one faces their own challenge related to their families.
Fun-loving Marcello (Mattia Minasi) is struggling to get out from under the thumb of his successful Italian soap star father. The soulful Nassim (Neyssan Falahi) wishes for a more fulfilling acting career while avoiding returning to Iran. And the artistically inclined Christine (Cristina Rambaldi) is searching for comfort and meaning after the death of her grandfather.
The three break through social boundaries and fall in love. But in the end Marcello must return to Italy, and while there, the balance of their relationship shifts and each has to find their own footing again.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
SC: I was attracted to Christine’s character. She is a force of nature, and a confident young woman who acts on her desires. She is empowered and comfortable in her own skin. Christine knows when to say no in her relationships, but also knows when she’s secure enough to say yes as well. She challenges some social norms surrounding love and expands acceptance beyond its current boundaries — acceptance of who we are and who we love.
I also wanted to paint a picture of the LA that I know, where I and my friends are mostly immigrants. We all speak English among ourselves, but other languages to our families across the sea. We are conflicted with the exciting open mindedness of LA and the traditions of our homeland.
Build onto that the unconventional love story, the black-and-white cinema verite style — I was excited to create a film that was inspired by my favorite movies that came from the rebellious attitude of filmmakers during the French New Wave.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
SC: My hope is that the audience is reminded how beautiful life is, and that we owe it to ourselves to live it to the fullest, and to make more choices based on love.
We’ve had audience members come up to us after festival screenings with smiles on their faces, saying, “Wow, this brings back memories. I wish I could live them all over again. And I would have made a few different choices.” I love hearing that.
I lost my father just two weeks before we started filming, and my co-writer and producer lost his father while we were in post, and their spirits were in our hearts while we were making this.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
SC: I would say that every stage of filmmaking is the biggest challenge! For me, the actual days of production are perhaps the easiest part. Post is hard, and grueling for its repetitiveness to someone like me who thrives on production. And getting distribution has proven to be very hard, particularly for a black and white film in multiple languages with subtitles! Even with all of our festival awards, it was a string of people saying no before Adrienne Becker of Level Forward/Screen Forward heard me speak at the Denver Film Festival and fell in love with the film.
And then the pandemic hit! Adrienne and her team have done an amazing job stepping into that void for independent films and helping them get noticed. They are setting up a virtual release for Valentine’s weekend filled with live workshops and meaningful, impact-oriented panels. I’m so thrilled! It is distribution done the way every filmmaker wants it to be.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
SC: My skills as a cinematographer were incredibly helpful in this case, as well as the editing skills of my producer. Together, we had the ability to both film scenes and put together a good presentation.
Once we got our actors Cristina, Neyssan and Mattia onboard, and after talking for hours in our living room about their characters and the story — and having lots of espresso and croissants together — we went out and did a day of filming.
This was incredibly valuable in so many ways. I knew the style and look I was going after and was able to create it on screen. The actors and I got to work together and became comfortable with each other and I was able to create a slice of the film. In fact, two of the four scenes we shot that day are in the final film!
More importantly, I was able to show this as a proof of concept to potential investors and say, “These are the actors. This the style. The film will look and feel like this.” Nick Sarkisov, who is a great filmmaker in his own right, fell in love with it, and he invested in the production budget and came on board as a producer. He understood the value of the vision behind the film and has believed in me from the beginning. Once we had a fine cut, we needed to raise more funds for finishing, and Sergey Sarkisov, also a filmmaker and investor, came on board as an executive producer and provided the funds we needed to complete the film. I’m very grateful to them both for the trust and belief in this film.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
SC: Ha! Stories! I make up stories about everything! I started as a still photographer and, even then, I loved to look at photos and develop, in my mind, the stories behind them: Who is that person? Why are they there? What are they going to do next?
My love for stories and images and light, soundscapes and music all come together in one word: cinema.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
SC: The best advice I’ve ever received came from an elderly taxi driver. I was going to a large event where I was one of the featured speakers, and the driver could tell I was nervous. I explained to him why, and he smiled and said, “That’s so easy. They have you up there because you’re you. Just be yourself. Nothing to worry about.” Those words still guide me on a daily basis.
I tend to forget bad advice.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
SC: Be prepared — beyond prepared — and shine when you get your opportunity, because you are still opening doors for others.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
SC: Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which is cinema verite at its best. I love the realism and unapologetic approach to the story — no filters, raw emotions, not premeditated, but straight up from the flesh and bones. It’s the story of a young woman’s need to escape a turbulent life and to be seen and to exist.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
SC: I felt paralyzed at first. I wasn’t quite sure how to manage my days.
Spending so many hours inside I became aware of how the light was moving through my apartment. I remembered my late dog who would follow the sun throughout the place so he could lay in a sunny spot all day long, so I picked up my camera and started to film the sunlight and shadows as they moved across my walls — all different kinds of shadows, some caused by direct sun, and others caused by reflections.
I ended up creating a mini short film out of it, “Shadows on the Wall.” It expresses my personal feelings of criticism for an administration that didn’t seem to care about the human lives being lost.
W&H: Protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
SC: A few years back I heard producer Effie T. Brown speak at a women’s luncheon at Sundance, and she boiled everything down to three simple words that can change our industry: hire, mentor, and invest. All of us can do at least one of those things, and this is how we can make progress!