Memories of a Penitent Heart delves into the height of the AIDS crisis at Cinema Politica screening
Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary, Memories of a Penitent Heart, began with a question: “If we only remember the good things about the people we love, what do we lose?” Her search for the answer led to the excavation of a guarded family history at the site of her uncle Miguel’s death. The documentary screened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Feb. 15 as part of Cinema Politica’s winter series, in conjunction with the Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS.
Miguel, who died of AIDS complications when Aldarondo was only six, became an elusive figure in her family. A cross-generational game of broken telephone seemed to obscure the circumstances of his death and the nature of his life. “I started sensing that something was really amiss in the way that he was talked about,” Aldarondo said. A persistent curiosity sent her back a generation to the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City, where her uncle lived at the time, and to the doorstep of his lost lover. “It is a personal film; it’s about family,” Aldarondo said. “It’s a film about memory.”
The story is guided by the tangible, material objects that house these memories: handwritten letters, dusty negatives, reels of Super 8 home movies, photographs—a seemingly endless trove of assorted archives. Aldarondo unpacks them on screen, weaving in the residual people and places from Miguel’s life through intimate interviews and the construction of a family tree with new, unexpected branches.
The film grapples with the complexity of Miguel’s identity, fractured by the social circumstances of his life. His experience as an immigrant in New York City, at a time when racism, homophobia and the stigma around AIDS were pervasive forces, placed Miguel in the precarious position of a cultural outsider.
The nuances of his identity were reserved for specific audiences, none of whom accepted Miguel in his entirety. “Popular depictions of bigotry tend to be extreme,” Aldarondo said of her uncle’s limited belonging in American society. “The story of exclusion tends to be more subtle.”
Over the course of the film, Aldarondo resurrects Miguel as the multidimensional person he was, not just who his family wanted him to be remembered as: Miguel the son, the brother, the uncle, the friend. He was also known as “Michael” the American actor to some, and Miguel the gay man, the Catholic, the Puerto Rican, the outsider to others.
It was important for Aldarondo to recognize the overbearing presence of religion throughout Miguel’s life, starting with his upbringing in an ultra-religious family in Puerto Rico. “Part of what I think about is the secularization of narratives around AIDS, and the way in which we talk about this notion that religion was only ever bad for queer people,” she said. “It forced me to try to see things in a more nuanced way.”
Aldarondo had to acknowledge her own contemporary biases and relationships with the people involved to reconcile the social and cultural chasms opened up by time. “It’s an ethical minefield,” she admitted. Bridging the gap between generations also meant navigating the devastating aftermath of the AIDS crisis. “I was really ill-prepared for the level of pain and unresolved grief that they all felt as a community,” said Aldarondo about members of the gay community who knew Miguel.
The documentary depicts how the AIDS crisis, as well as the art, activism and social repercussions it produced, doesn’t occupy the same space in contemporary dialogue as other social movements from the past.
Like Miguel’s story, the epidemic is largely remembered through the lens of the mainstream media, a depiction that isn’t necessarily representative of the entire complex struggle. Aldarondo learned that identity politics were as present among the communities affected by the AIDS crisis as they were in Miguel’s own life.
“I do think of the film as a kind of intimate activism,” Aldarondo said, referencing the feminist phrase: “The personal is political.” Even as she encountered criticism that personal narratives do not belong in activist documentaries, Aldarondo remained steadfast in her belief that individual, human stories are the way to access bigger social issues. Telling stories to a mainstream audience that would have otherwise gone unheard is, in itself, a political act, she explained.
If Memories of a Penitent Heart is a walk down memory lane, then it is also a trek deep into turbulent, uncharted territory. Though the film began as a search for closure, it becomes apparent that an ultimate resolution can’t be reached. “It’s not like we know the definitive story of Miguel,” Aldarondo said. “He’s gone. It’s more about his absence.”
As much as the film is about revisiting old wounds left by shame and denial, the healing process takes place in the aftermath. Memories of a Penitent Heart fills in the gaps in memory so that what’s gone isn’t forgotten. “In a crisis like the AIDS crisis, there were so many people jockeying for power over that moment,” Aldarondo said. “It’s trying to sort of give him his moment back, in a way.”
Feature photo taken by Mackenzie Lad