Memories of a Penitent Heart

PBS Premiere: July 31, 2017Check the broadcast schedule »

Film Update

In July 2017, POV asked Memories of a Penitent Heart filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo what's happened since the cameras stopped rolling.

What has Father Aquin been up to since the film?
Aquin lives a quiet life in Pasadena, California. He's retired and spends most days visiting with friends at the local Starbucks and looking after his cat.

And what about Miguel's sister, Nylda?
Nylda is a writer living in Orlando, FL. Since the film's release she has become very vocally supportive of LGBT people's need for family acceptance. She's really become something of an activist; after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub last year, she organized a benefit screening of the film that raised over $3,000 for Pulse survivors and victims' families. In June she traveled with me to Puerto Rico, where we spent a week sharing the film with people there.

How has this film been received throughout the nation?
The film has screened in many contexts: at film festivals, on college campuses, and in collaboration with public health organizations. It has screened for queer audiences, for AIDS survivors, for people who go to church, for people recovering from church, for Latinx youth currently struggling with their sexuality, for families with queer members, etc. And it has been truly extraordinary to meet so many people who feel that they have a Miguel in their family (or are the 'Miguel' in their family), or who feel that the film has enabled them to face painful resentments, or to re-examine their perspective on someone they loved. In many ways, Memories tries to critically examine the poison of black and white thinking, and how that kind of righteousness can polarize families in conflict. So for me, one of the most gratifying things has to connect firsthand with audience members who, through watching the film, come to re-examine their lives and those they love in shades of grey.

In what ways have you seen or do you hope to see this film add to the conversation around LGBTQ issues, the stigma regarding HIV/AIDS, religious identity and family?
I always wanted Memories to be an intersectional film. It's kind of like a prism; depending on your perspective, you might focus on one theme or another, but they're all interwoven. In other words, Memories is about LGBTQ acceptance and HIV/AIDS stigma and religion and cultural difference and family. And to me, these interrelations are part of what's missing in many of our conversations. For example, in recent years we've seen a great deal of worthy films that revisit the HIV/AIDS crisis, both in documentary and narrative films. But overwhelmingly, these depictions have tended to focus on the experience of a handful of white cis men, and have not explored the ways that HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact poor people and people of color in the US. This promotes a growing blind spot in popular representations of HIV/AIDS that promotes the false notion that HIV/AIDS is a thing of the past, and ignores questions of cultural difference, religion and gender. The side effect of this is that we tend to get a dominant narrative around HIV/AIDS that simplifies our understandings of it, that presents it as a disease of the past, when for people of color, it's very much a contemporary problem.

For me, Memories intervenes in this gap. For example, the film attempts to understand how Miguel's experience of AIDS in relation to his upbringing in a US colony like Puerto Rico, and his attempts to integrate into US life on the mainland. It explores how the historic dominance of Catholicism in Puerto Rican culture played such a strong role in his mother's disapproval of his homosexuality. And it also explores how faith came into play during Miguel's final moments in a way that challenges the dominant secular narratives around HIV/AIDS.

How did this film help you process the complex dynamic surrounding your uncle Miguel's place in your family?
The film, in many ways, was a vehicle for me to examine things that were lying dormant, but lying right in front of me. That's the thing about open secrets--much of the information is right there, but sometimes the biggest challenge is asking people to face the issue directly. I'm lucky that those of my family who were still living, my mother Nylda in particular, had the courage to take this process on. I always say that before this film, Miguel was remembered in a partial, idealized way. His life as a talented actor was celebrated, but his life as a gay man was completely ignored. I think that the film, in addition to giving us all a measure of peace and perspective I think we lacked before, has given me and my family the chance to know and love Miguel more fully.

Have you continued your journey to further understand your uncle and his experiences since this film?
The thing about documentaries is that even though the films may end, the stories they explore do not. Even though Miguel has been gone for 30 years, I keep learning new things about him. Especially since finishing the film, people who knew Miguel--some of whom I never knew existed--have been coming out of the woodwork. They often come to screenings and surprise me, standing up in Q&As and sharing new stories, new photos, new letters he wrote them. The biggest thing that has deepened has been respect and love for my uncle. In many ways he was an ordinary guy who never 'made it' as an actor, but the mark he made on the people he knew was really quite extraordinary. He was the kind of guy that took the light with him whenever he left a room. And so every once in a while, usually when I least expect it, I get another pang of grief that I never got to really know him.

What have you been working on?
In May I completed a short documentary called Picket Line. The film was commissioned by Field of Vision and Firelight Media for their series 'Our 100 Days,' which explores threats to American democracy under the Trump administration. I am also currently developing my next documentary feature, a film for anyone who survived high school.