Pooja Sivaraman is a freelance journalist and former intern with POV’s Production & Programming department
When I first saw Memories of a Penitent Heart, I was touched by its tenderness. Cecilia Aldarondo’s film is a collection of untold memories, an investigation into her uncle Miguel’s life twenty-five years after he died of AIDs. I sat down with Cecilia Aldarondo at the POV office to talk about her film and how it so subtly treads the line between the political and the personal. She describes the importance of intimacy when telling a story, especially in a way that embraces what intersectionality should look like on screen.
In the opening of the film, she questions: “If we only remember the good things about the people we love, what do we lose?” In a broader sense, I think we lose a lot when we fail to acknowledge that a person is a multitude of identities. Miguel struggled with accepting himself as a gay man and he also struggled with embracing his Puerto Rican roots after moving to New York. “The question of whether or not to assimilate plays out on multiple levels” says Cecilia, “It’s not just ‘Is he gay?’ or ‘Is he Latino?’ It’s both”. Miguel’s story is about race and sexuality, but it also transcends both concepts.
I don’t have much in common with this story, but when I think about my own experience with grappling with who I am in a foreign place I could very much relate to this film. “This is a story that many queer people of all colors have told me they connect to,” Cecilia says, “and yet at the same time it’s also a story for people who aren’t queer at all but who understand the experience of diaspora and what it means to be in a new place”. That to me describes the importance of intersectionality. When details are forgotten or generalized, we lose the ability to associate with other human experiences. People get caught under blanket terms like “immigrant”, “Latino”, and “homosexual”, and the intimacy gets written out.
“I fought very hard in our edit to never forget these nuances”, says Cecilia. Miguel’s monologue Island Fever, which is included in the voiceover, drips with his conflicted nostalgia for Puerto Rico. The feeling of entrapment he conveys about growing up on the tiny island mimics the constraints placed on his sexual identity by his faith, mother, and siblings. Despite moving to New York, changing his name, and altering his accent, Miguel was bound by religion to the ideals he grew up with. The politics of Catholicism and homosexuality found a very personal place in his identity.
The film poses the question: “How do you know who you are if the place you’re coming from doesn’t even know what it is?” What Miguel left behind in Puerto Rico became central to who he was when he passed. “Even now, Puerto Rico has no autonomy”, says Aldarondo, “that in my opinion contributes to a lot of schizophrenia of self”. The various layers of Miguel’s personality come together so beautifully, where one experience acts as a metaphor for the other. This poetry of the self shows us how people with intersectional identities find both turmoil and peace in a myriad of experiences. The difficulty lies in not losing that depth when trying to retell their stories. “It felt very important for me to recognize the specificity without reducing him to that specificity of his cultural background” Cecilia says.
Politics were not absent from the filmmaking process either. Putting a lens between yourself and a story will inevitably change both. “In the early stages of making the film, everyone would say, ‘I don’t know where you are in this story'” Aldarondo explains, “In my desire to maintain my distance from this material, I was actually revealing the judgment that I was reserving for everyone.”
I ask Cecilia whether introducing a camera made the conversation any easier, and she talks about the sense of power and privilege holding a camera can give you. At one point while filming, her mother said to her, “You’ve stolen my story”. The irony of that goes to show just how complicated it is to claim responsibility for sharing another person’s life. “This film, in a way, is a manifestation of those tensions around who gets to tell what story”, says Cecilia.
When stories become histories the question of ownership is more complex, because history is not often told from the perspective of oppressed or marginalized people. This film reminds us of the responsibility we have first as the living, then as media makers, to tell the stories of those who cannot. “If anything, the goal of the film is to sketch out the boundaries of the negative space that history creates”, says Aldarondo.
Stories like this one act as a vessel for an untold life and a portal for viewers to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Documentaries, which lie at the crux of art and social justice, are a way to bridge the spaces we’ve created with language and to fill the gaps in our learned histories. Now more than ever we need to digest the simple fact that the political is personal. We can do so by listening. Memories of a Penitent Heart reminds us of how to be intimate with identity politics. “Intimacy is not outside this stuff; it’s actually at the heart of it all” Aldarondo concludes. “It’s not ancillary to the work we need to be doing out there, in the streets, as it were. It’s actually endemic to that work.”
Memories of a Penitent Heart premieres Monday, July 31 on POV.