“You can’t get there from here” — usually drawled in a thick Maine accent — is an old New England saw. In South Florida, it usually means your path is obstructed by bays, canals, drawbridges, railroad tracks, one-way streets, Miami International Airport or a combination of these.
But for Dmitry Zhitov — photographer, film director, fitness guru, ball of energy — the expression actually meant, “How do I get from a small farm in Siberia” — yes, that Siberia — “to Miami Beach?”
The answer was aboard a cruise ship, of course. It’s fair to say that Zhitov, 35, has come about as far as anyone to get where he is today.
Recently, we sat down with this busy guy at The Villa Casa Casuarina on Ocean Drive to ask him about big life changes, family, the LGBT community, photography, storytelling, Cuba and what the future holds.
Coming to America
Growing up on a farm in northeastern Russia, Zhitov enjoyed a bucolic childhood mostly spent working with animals, as the Soviet Union dissolved around him. It was far from any major metropolitan center and bitterly cold. He says he yearned for something else.
So he did what any young dreamer would do and got a job on the other side of the planet: in Miami. He recalls loving every minute of setting sail on the cruise ship he joined, but that wasn’t his first escape. Previously he had set off to London with nothing but curiosity as his guide.
“As I was flying there, I thought how interesting life can be when you move to a completely strange city, not knowing anybody,” he says. “You just build a new life.
“It was the same with Miami. I moved here and rebuilt everything, made friends, connections.”
After his cruise ship gig, his first job on dry land was teaching yoga. He trained in California, got certified and became an instructor. Yoga was a catalyst for many of the changes to come.
In fact, just about everything in his life changed dramatically with each small decision he made. While in Siberia, he says he was not physically or socially active. In South Florida, he dove into activities like hot yoga and CrossFit, and he immersed himself into the high-energy local scene, too. “What I was missing there, I found here. There’s so much going on in Miami.”
Zhitov places a high premium on fitness, saying it should be the most important part of our lives, as it boosts energy, focus and drive. “Body and mind are connected. Fitness keeps me focused on goals.
“I met Fernando at a film festival, [and] he said he did a boot camp on the beach,” he recalls. The workouts were challenging and invigorating, so he was instantly hooked. He has now been practicing CrossFit for five years in addition to his yoga instruction.
It has all been a great vehicle for him to make new friends. This interconnected chain of activities, people and accomplishments seems to be a theme in Zhitov’s life. But to hear him say it, you’d think he was charmed and blissfully unaware of it.
“If you have a passion for something, go build your circle of friends around that. Get the most out of it, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing,” he says confidently.
Real life is what happens while we’re making other plans. When a friend of a friend needed a health expert for his TV talk show, Zhitov seized the opportunity.
“I liked talking about health and fitness, but had not been in front of the camera before,” he confides.
Though he was a little nervous about being on TV, he decided to give it a try, and the piece took on a life of its own. Zhitov became a regular, meeting other health experts, including doctors, acupuncturists and massage therapists. He edited a few short segments together, getting practice filming and interviewing. This, in turn, naturally led him to work on commercials and music videos.
Then one day he passed the Palace Bar on Ocean Drive and saw the performers there. “You never see this in Siberia, drag shows. I was fascinated,” he says. “So, I started filming.”
All these seemingly unrelated experiences culminated in Zhitov’s first documentary, South Beach on Heels. “It’s like your first baby. The first-born is special, a first love. Still makes me proud.”
It was a film made with plenty of respect for the people involved. When he initally showed the performers what he had shot, he says they loved it. He wanted to make a film that was not just about the heels and glamour, but about their lives.
“They opened their hearts to me. I followed them for about a year, learning to film and edit — the right way, the artistic way,” he says. “It got an amazing response.”
That sense of wonder and the immeasurable pleasure he takes in his work is palpable. It has also led to professional recognition and accolades. Just last year he began touring the film festival circuit, participating in 30 festivals, including Milan, Madrid, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Key West, among many others. South Beach on Heels garnered critical acclaim and earned a few awards in the process.
Once again, the connections he made in that journey opened new doors and led him to new projects. Having worked with Miami socialite Lea Black in this time led him to a fateful meeting with her good friend, Elaine Lancaster, an association that put him on an inspired path.
“Elaine has a very interesting life,” he says. “Now I’m making a documentary about it — two years of shooting. I just finished.”
Elaine Lancaster’s Diva Destinations kicked off in Mykonos, with the two filming various aspects of the destination and Lancaster’s adventures there. For their next stop, the pair is heading to Cuba, a place that Zhitov visited for an unrelated multimedia project and one that captured his imagination.
It took 40 days for Zhitov to cover the whole island. In the process, he took thousands of pictures, but his recently released coffee table book, Faces and Voices of Cuba features a selection of just 150.
Collaborating with writer Susan Fort Collins, he also recorded sounds that included everything from people’s voices to ambient noises that are typical on the island. The idea was for readers to get the whole experience. “While looking at the pictures, you’ll actually hear Cuba.”
“The Cubans were curious about us. I had all this equipment — flashes, cameras, lights,” he says. “The Cubans loved the Russians and are curious about the Americans. They received me warmly. Without even knowing me, they welcomed me into their homes.”
In many ways Cuba is still untouched, but it is also painfully poor. Through pictures and sounds, Faces and Voices of Cuba takes readers along a journey through the island. While the first limited edition set has been available online, the book is scheduled for release in early October.
“I’m fascinated by narratives, as well as documentaries,” says Zhitov. “The 48-Hour Project taught me that.”
My Brother Reg, was the film that came out of that project. Relating the story of a transgender person abused by family, the short piece touches upon transgender issues, suicide, family and acceptance, all in seven minutes. “It’s quite a journey,” he says.
His team won four awards for that project: Best Writing, Best Actor, Best Directing (Zhitov) and runner up for Best Film.
“I want to make films that will change the world, that have meaning.”
Though he avoids direct involvement in politics, he is heavily invested in promoting social equity. “Films and photography are how I fight for change,” he says.
So, for someone who has come so far in so little time, what does the future look like?
“I see myself in filmmaking, still. Learning, still. I like being creative. I’m coming back into a state of happiness and peace, back to a balance,” he says. “People work too much. We have to work, but we have to take care of ourselves, find that balance.”
Body of Work
• Bastard for Dinner Short 
• My Brother Reg Short 
• Elaine Lancaster’s Diva Destinations Travel Show 
• Who Killed Amy Taylorson Short 
• The M.O.B Wives of Richmond Documentary 
• Running Documentary 
• Made in Miami Documentary Short 
• What is Perfect? Documentary Short 
• South Beach on Heels Documentary