A Generation After Uncle's AIDS Death, Filmmaker Traces the Path of Faith, Family and Forgiveness
June 5, 2014
In 1987, when Cecilia Aldarondo was 6 years old, her uncle Miguel died of AIDS in a New York City hospital. Today, the New York-based filmmaker, critic and curator is rediscovering her uncle's life and her family's past -- and forging a relationship with his live-in partner Aquin, who had been written out of their family's story.
In an increasingly rich field of HIV-related films, Memories of a Penitent Heart will be the first feature-length documentary focusing on the faith-based bias that drives families to unwitting bigotry against LGBT people and those living with HIV.
Cecilia took some time to talk with me in the final stretch of the fundraising campaign to bring the film to life, sharing her motivation for making the film and how it has changed her view of people living with HIV and the history of the epidemic.
You've spoken about how "recent films do a lot to historicize AIDS, and to combat the risk of forgetting, [but] there is a lot they have left out."
What are the missing pieces of the puzzle your film will contribute?
I have a two-part answer to this question. On the one hand, I think that these films -- and I think that the fact that there have been so many in the past few years is no accident -- I think that they are doing a very important job of getting, sort of, the American public present to how devastating the AIDS crisis was at its height. I also think that the sort of major films that have been made in the past few years, for me, run the risk of implying that AIDS is over. That's one thing that I think is important to really stress -- is that it's very far from over for a lot of people. But they tend to be people who don't necessarily have the visibility or resources to be heard and seen. So that's one thing: I think that it's important that we bear in mind that there's a possibility, when we narrate history, that in the very act of narrating history we leave things out, and that those things are themselves very important symptoms of something.
So, for me, part of this comes down to the fact that there are whole communities and sectors of society -- mainly people of color, women -- whose stories aren't necessarily being told. I think that, for example, people of color are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS today. And so, for me, part of going back to this history is two-fold. On the one hand, I'm trying to diversify the history of the AIDS crisis in the '80s and '90s; but also to then use it as an occasion to talk about the fact that AIDS is still very much a phenomenon that's with us today.
What would it mean if we had something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in this country around the AIDS crisis? What would that look like? If we had gay people telling their stories about the ways that they took care of each other and the ways that they really fought at a time when they were also being abandoned? And what would it mean if their families and friends who are straight heard them?
I don't know. I think there's something about the sort of benefit of hindsight that opens up that space for dialogue that I think -- you know, I don't know that it would ever happen on a sort of public scale, but I think that maybe it should.
I think that we as a country really haven't taken stock of how devastating, how profoundly devastating, this crisis was to our social fabric for everybody. So that's one thing.
But I also think at the same time it's not just a historical phenomenon. It is a very present, live phenomenon. People get infected every day. People are dealing with finding out that they're positive, figuring out how to tell their families. I think stigma is still a huge issue. I think that these questions of the way religion starts to play, in terms of the decisions family members make about whether or not to be supportive, or how to listen: It's all still happening. It's not just that it's something we had to deal with then; it's something we have to deal with now. And that's something that I would like the film to also open up. It's for people to examine their own lives and say -- and this even goes beyond AIDS -- I would like for people to look at themselves and say, "Do I have a gay family member that I don't really accept?" for example.
What was your personal timeline of how you came to this issue? What did you know, or how were you involved with HIV before learning about your family's story?
I will say that the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s: I'm just old enough for that to have really impacted me. I remember when I was about 10 years old reading for the first time, I think it was, a Newsweek feature. It was one of the first mainstream, long, detailed, pretty gruesome articles about the AIDS crisis. And at this point AIDS was already very much a crisis that was sort of a runaway train. I remember being very impacted by this description of symptoms, and what people were experiencing on a clinical level.
And then later, as I became a more political person who cared about social justice and things like this, the more I learned about the AIDS crisis, the more impressed I was that it was such a seminal period for galvanizing people in ways that we haven't seen for a while since, in a way. I think for me that might be one of the reasons why so many people are wanting to look to this period: because there's a sort of almost weird nostalgia for a time. It seems paradoxical to call this period a time of vitality, but I think, in a certain way, there was a vitality in all of this horror that people were dealing with.
I think people did some extraordinary things to try and make the crisis less unmitigated, and deal with some really very difficult things. The other thing I would say is that I have a fine arts background. A lot of my favorite artists happen to also be impacted by the AIDS crisis.
As a person who is not living with HIV, how do you see your role, your voice and your responsibilities as the person telling this story?
It sounds a little self-important, and I don't want it to be taken that way -- but the best word I can think of is the word witness. And that's because I think that a witness is somebody who isn't necessarily the person that's directly the agent, or the person who's acted upon, but the person who is there simply to see what happens. And that person can either be something like a bystander who just sort of watches what happens and doesn't do anything, or somebody who tries to, without presuming to actually know exactly what somebody went through, to listen and to facilitate.
For me, that's been the best way that I can think about what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to say, "Oh, I know exactly what it was like for somebody who either was infected or lost someone," in a way that -- you know, I was 6 years old when my uncle died. So I can't say that my uncle's friends, or lover, that their pain is -- that my pain is equal to their pain, because it's just not. At the same time, I do think that if people who are not part of the LGBT community directly are not thinking about these things, then it sort of re-ghettoizes that community. And I think that it's always important to think about -- I think that there's a risk of insularity in only telling these stories from sort of within the community.
And when you connected with your uncle's partner after 25 years of estrangement from your family, what was it like to forge a relationship with him?
It was crazy. I don't know. It's a strange thing to spend several years actively searching for someone, someone who the only thing I knew [of] was his first name, and then to have that person turn up and contact me on Christmas Eve and say, "I'm the person you're looking for." It's a very strange thing. And it's both extremely sort of satisfying -- like, finally! -- and in a weird way it confirmed everything, every suspicion I had of the conflict that happened, and the fact that the suspicion I had that my uncle's relationship was a very profound -- it wasn't just a casual thing. It was very much a full partnership. And all these questions that I'd had; it was sort of satisfying to know that, in a way, I was right.
But, at the same time, it's sort of like, I don't know, going out and looking for your birth mother if you're adopted. I could never have known what his personality would be like and what his foibles were, or what he wanted out of the fact that I'm making this documentary, or even a kind of, what now? It's not like he can be my biological uncle -- not that we aren't cultivating a relationship. But it's, how do I say this? I will say that the most kind of significant thing for me, at least in the very beginning of finding him, was having a sense that I wasn't going to ruin his life by tracking him down, and that it was something where he had all of this desire for someone in my family to hear him. And to think that I was able to actually do him some good, in that regard, was good. Comforting.
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