Cecilia Aldarondo on the Move From Critic to Filmmaker, and Why the AIDS Crisis Still Matters

Cecilia Aldarondo on the Move From Critic to Filmmaker, and Why the AIDS Crisis Still Matters

In Part 1 of this interview we explored how Cecilia Aldarondo turned the camera on her family for Memories of a Penitent Heart. Read it here. We continue the conversation below.


Can you talk about how your academic background informed your filmmaking process?
I am not trained as a filmmaker, I am trained as a film critic. I have a very interdisciplinary training. I did my PhD in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, so my work has always drawn from different intellectual traditions. I come from contemporary art theory, from cultural studies, and film. Even though I’m now a filmmaker, I am very much interested in the documentary format. I came to this film tangentially, and it became a film because my mom found these home movies in the garage. It was always a story with an audio-visual nature, and from the beginning I always felt like the story needed to be told in the form of a film. For me this story is a film because it is the form that is the most relevant to the problematic of the story. It has a narrative. I guess I have a pretty eclectic way of approaching filmmaking. I should also say that there is a symbiosis between my filmmaking and my teaching. For example I’m currently teaching a course on HIV/AIDS in Film and Video, so I always go back and forth between filmmaking and other forms of academic work.

What were your reasons for making Memories of a Penitent Heart, and why did you decide to make it when you did?
A lot of people have been talking in the past decade or so about this question of AIDS revisitation. I am a part of a roundtable discussion that is going to be published in a book about what AIDS revisitation means among academics. In the past 5 to 10 years, we’ve seen this big resurgence of interest in HIV/AIDS. It fell out of visibility for quite a long time, but now see a whole host of film and artistic works and projects that look back at the peak crisis years. I think that there is something about this particular moment--where you have, on one hand, this aging population of survivors that went through something deeply traumatic, particularly in the US, and at the same time, you have this risk of AIDS being seen as something that is over (when it’s not). We have this really incredible opportunity right now to try and understand the crisis and why and how it happened. In many ways, my Uncle’s story is steeped in that historical moment. And also to try and understand now--how are we actually framing this history in a way that leaves certain people out? There’s a risk of forgetting those that are still struggling with the disease, who very often are people of color, and so right now we are at a pivotal juncture where a lot of people are trying to think carefully about how we historicize AIDS.

How do you hope different community groups will use the film?
Depending on what the project is of a particular community group or of a particular teacher, there are different outcomes that can come from those different approaches. I would hate to try and prescribe how the film can be used, because I think it can be used in a lot of different ways. I primarily see the film as a dialogue tool; it is a film that really opens up in discussion. People often need time to let the film sink in, and then they find themselves talking about it. I tried very hard in making the film to not demonize any of the players, to try and show a degree of understanding and empathy for everyone involved in this conflict. I did not want to just paint a broad brush of victim and perpetrator, and instead to see things as grey rather than black-and-white. I feel like in conflict people retreat to their positions and their views, and part of the reason that conflict occurs, and continues to occur, is because people get stuck in their view of another person.

My hope is that the film could be a tool for people to try and understand one another, and be a little bit more thoughtful and compassionate in trying to understand where their loved ones are coming from. Why they are the way they are, and not just fixating on what they do. In that sense, there’s a possibility of it being a tool for transformation. This is potentially a film that can enable people who have been through something painful to get a measure of peace of mind. I do not believe in the tidiness of healing. I feel like reconciliation and healing all take a huge amount of work and maintenance, and it is never simple. It is an ongoing process, but I feel like if the film can create a degree of space where anybody who has been through something like this can attain a measure of perspective or peace of mind. That is hugely significant. The last thing I would say is that there are very few stories that have been told about people of color in the history of HIV/AIDS and in queer stories at large in the United States. That is another thing--it goes back to that interdisciplinary approach for me.

The film speaks to a number of broader social issues: the AIDS epidemic, LGBT rights, and Latinx visibility. How do you envision this as an educational, or even an activist film? What educational audience do you feel it speaks to?
I see this film as a deeply intersectional film, and in that, a deeply interdisciplinary one. It is a film that is centered on the question of family, because that is where it all happens in this microcosmic way through a series of overlapping vectors. I’m trying to understand how my uncle’s situation was this perfect storm about what happened to him because of a series of intersecting factors. So the question, for example, of his Puerto Rican upbringing, what does it mean that he wasn’t just a gay man, but a gay man struggling with his relationship to his homeland in a way that is very significant for people who are either the products of colonial histories or of diaspora? Although it is very relevant to the Latinx context, it is also broadly applicable to people who are interested in diaspora or postcolonial issues. At the same time, there was also a very strong religious component to what was happening in my family, so it may appeal to anybody who is interested in the role of religion as it plays out in these situations. Also LGBT rights and LGBT history are central to the story.

I have a PhD that is interdisciplinary, and one of the things that I have been long interested in is memory, history, and the fragmented way that people’s lives are remembered and forgotten. Form an intellectual perspective about understanding memory and how it works, and particularly its relation to archival objects, is relevant for people who are interested in those kinds of things. I think of this film as a Venn diagram with my uncle at the heart. Depending on one’s point of entry, audiences will relate to the film from their access point. Whether it’s people who are interested in the question of AIDS survival--that is one point of entry--or thinking of it as the experience of Latinxs in the United States--that’s another point of entry, etc. I don’t think of them as potentially one excluding the other, but rather one point of entry possibly enriching another.

Caitlin Mavromates is a graduate of Bard College (‘16) in New York. She now resides in Los Angeles pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking.