Filmmaker Patricia Vidal Delgado (“La Leyenda Negra”), who served as the mentor for our Inaugural Short Film Festival, suggested I reach out to Italian filmmaker and actor Cecilia Abertini as a potential candidate for a future program mentor. Knowing little about her at that time, I am so glad Patricia connected us. Cecilia is an award-winning filmmaker and actor. She is breaking down walls with her films that elevate underrepresented voices onscreen, specifically those of female immigrants. Cecilia Albertini is our April Showcase mentor and tomorrow, Saturday April 24th, she will announce her mentee recipient. Four filmmakers have been selected to compete for this mentorship. These filmmakers include Anna Fredrikke Bjerke (“Other People”), Michelle Hernandez (“Douk”), Sydney Morgan (“Hues and Hidden Kings”), and Emma Thatcher (“Fletcher”). You can watch their films here until 4/30.
I’m so excited to see where their mentorship will take them. It was a pleasure interviewing Cecilia about her work and her road to filmmaking. Our conversation spans her career from starting out as an actor in Italy, to going to school at Columbia in NYC and then to film school at UCLA. While at UCLA, she did a behind-the-scenes documentary of a LIVE show Francis Ford Coppola was bringing the screen (“Francis Ford Coppola’s LIVE Cinema”) with the film students at UCLA. Then she went on to make her award-winning short “Labor”, about a surrogate mother who has to make a choice when the family decides to abort their child because a found defect. She also helmed the documentary “Basta” about a group of women, who are all immigrants that work as night managers. They end up creating a self defense group to protect themselves in case they are being sexually assaulted on the job. Before we parted, Cecilia made sure to give us an enticing look at some of her projects that are in development. I’m excited to see what’s next for her!
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you into filmmaking?
CECILIA ALBERTINI: The way it started for me was acting. I was an actress in Italy, which is where I’m from. I started acting right out of high school, from age 19 and on. I was working as an actor in both television and film. I played several lead roles in movies that mostly came out in Italy.
As I was working on set, I started to feel like I always wanted to write and be the creator behind a film, rather than just a smaller piece who can be moved around. I just was really craving a sense of control that I felt like I didn’t have as an actress, especially as a female actor. The roles that I was getting were very typecast. I was either somebody’s girlfriend, the guy’s girlfriend, the love interest of the protagonist, or the ingenue temptress. I don’t think it was about me, but those were the female roles that existed in Italy at the time, and honestly they still exist there. The stories that are told are much more male centric.
I felt like I couldn’t express myself in that environment, so I moved to the US. I went to college in New York, I studied film, and I loved it. I was part of a film studies program, which was very much about film history and film criticism. My classes taught me so much about the history of movies, and I started writing my own scripts. Then I started to make my own shorts, and that’s how I continued into filmmaking.
MARTIN: So you started your filmmaking journey in New York. What school did you attend?
ALBERTINI: I went to Columbia, and I was taking a lot of classes in their graduate film program. The professors there are amazing. There was specifically one female professor who is a very accomplished Argentinian director [Julia Solomonoff]. Just seeing her as a female director really gave me hope that this is something I can do. Her approach to filmmaking was so interesting. And it was just cool seeing a woman filmmaker.
MARTIN: Talk to me about what brought you to LA?
ALBERTINI: I got into the graduate program at UCLA in 2014. I was there for 3 1/2 years. That’s how I met Patricia Delgado and many others. At the same time, I was working at UCLA as an Assistant Professor. That’s why I came to LA, to go to UCLA, and I graduated in 2018.
MARTIN: When you did your work with Francis Ford Coppola was that when you were going to school at UCLA? Can you talk about that experience?
ALBERTINI: In 2018, Francis Ford Coppola came to our school to create this LIVE Cinema performance, and he only hired mostly students to work on it, like the AD, the gaffers, and the actors. Everyone on the crew was a student, with exception of the DP, who was actually a professional, along with a couple of other people who were professionals. I was asked by UCLA to a do a Behind the Scenes documentary about the process, and that’s what I did.
It was difficult because UCLA wanted more of a promotional piece for the college, but I along with the producer of the documentary wanted to make something that was more like a good story. We were lucky because Francis was receptive to us, and he was always available for the interviews, even though he was working on this project full time. He was never annoyed that we were following him around all of the time. Even when we’d put the mic on him, which can be a rigorous process, he never showed any type of annoyance. He was just a joy to be around.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk about your short film “Labor.” What brought you to that project?
ALBERTINI: I was doing research on a different movie, specifically about surrogacy and artificial insemination, and all of these new technologies that help women have children. I’ve always been interested in that topic. I started really looking into what surrogacy is, and I found it extremely interesting because it’s such a new concept. Surrogacy was something that was unthinkable until a few years ago. Then I was reading a story about a woman who was a surrogate, and like in the film, they found out that the baby had some birth defects and wanted her to abort. At that point, she was already really far ahead into the pregnancy. She didn’t want to have an abortion, and the parents wanted her to. Then she fled because she could legally give birth in different states. She fled because if she gave birth in a different state, she could be recognized as the mother. If she hadn’t left, she would not have been recognized as the mother. So she went, left the state, gave birth, and had the baby.
To me what is interesting is not the choice of whether to have an abortion. I’ve always 100% supported abortion when it’s the choice of the mother. I find it interesting that a woman is being told what to do with her own body. Pregnancy is such a personal experience. I think it’s a form of violence to tell a woman what to do with her body. But in the case of surrogacy, it’s so complex because the woman who is paying the surrogate is thought as the actual mother of the baby, ethically speaking. Like whose baby is this? I thought it was an interesting dynamic, and I wanted to put that on the screen. Then I collaborated with the screenwriter, and that was that.
MARTIN: “Labor” is such a beautiful film. Now I want to talk about that documentary “Basta.”
ALBERTINI: Yes, that one came about because I read an article in the LA Times about this group of women who are all immigrants from mostly Hispanic countries in America. They are all immigrants that work as night managers and they created a self-defense group to teach each other how to defend themselves in case they are being sexually assaulted on the job, which happens often, unfortunately.
I read that article and I thought, ‘What a cool group of women. I want to meet them, and I want to see if there is a story to tell.’ My co-director [Lesley Elizondo] and I got in touch with them, and they were super-receptive because they wanted their story to be told. They want their plights to be known and recognized. It was great because we had their complete collaboration and they were fully open during the process. It took us a year to get all of the things we needed to film, but it was a great journey. They are inspiring and brave people.
MARTIN: What draws you to certain projects?
ALBERTINI: Anything that has to do with women, especially marginalized women. I want those stories to be told. I love stories about immigrants. Being an immigrant woman, I understand what it’s like to be from a different country, and having to find your place here. The actress, Diana Elizabeth Torres, who played the main character in “Labor” is a Mexican actress. In the film she plays a Mexican immigrant mother who lives in the United States. I really wanted that character to be an immigrant, to add another layer. There is a lot more complexity involved if you are an immigrant in this country. I am drawn to immigrant and female stories that aren’t often shown in the mainstream.
MARTIN: What projects are coming up for you that you can share?
ALBERTINI: There are a few things that I’m working on that are in development. One is a TV show that I co-wrote with a friend of mine. She is an actress and screenwriter from England. It’s a very female-centric comedy. It’s a crime comedy about a mother and a daughter who have a dysfunctional relationship. In tone, it’s very different from anything I’ve done before. It still centers on women, but this time in a more funny, light-hearted way. I also wrote a script that I’d like to shoot in Italy. I’m still developing it. It’s a female-led thriller, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make it sooner than later. There are a few other things, but right now I’m just waiting to see when things are going to open up again.
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
ALBERTINI: The rule is to try to make as many films as you can. It doesn’t need to be a big budget, it can be something really small. But try to get as much practice as you can.
Film school is out of reach for some people because it’s expensive. But for me, film school was a good choice. Through film school, I developed a network of collaborators, which is priceless. If you’re not in LA, it’s okay, but wherever you are, try to find a creative community. It’s so important, because being a writer and director, you can feel so isolated. I can’t do everything on my own, you need other people. Right now I have a writing group with some friends. Every week we workshop a script, and we get feedback on it. We help each other out and it’s so important. Otherwise you feel so cut off and isolated.
My advice is to find your creative community, and keep making films. I think now is a good time to be a female filmmaker compared to 10 to 20 years ago. Because finally there is more interest in female stories told by women. We still have a lot of work ahead in terms of giving opportunities, but things seem to be finally looking up for us.