‘Memories of a Penitent Heart’: When Your Film Puts Your Own Family on the Line
Sundance Fellow Cecilia Aldarondo’s ‘Memories of a Penitent Heart’ unearths painful family history.
Cecilia Aldarondo is having a banner run. Her documentary Memories of a Penitent Heart premiered to critical acclaim at Tribeca Film Festival last year, where it was picked up for broadcast on the prestigious documentary series, POV. She made the Filmmaker Magazine 25 New Faces of Independent Film list. Now, en route to her second feature, she’s been selected as one of only six Women at Sundance fellows, a program in its fifth year that supports emerging female directors and producers.
But, as with any first-time filmmaker, it wasn’t an easy path, and hers was all the more challenging because of her film’s subject matter and approach: it deals with the uncomfortable legacy of her homosexual uncle Miguel, who died of AIDS 25 years ago when Aldarondo was only five. She confronts her closest family members and ultimately reunites them with her uncle’s male romantic partner, who the conservative Catholic clan had largely shunned for the better part of a lifetime.
“I’ve learned throughout this process that I have an inordinate capacity to handle brutality.”
Of the upcoming Sundance fellowship, Aldarondo told NFS: “Longevity and sustainability are real problems for female filmmakers; often, we make our first films and never get heard from again while our male colleagues eclipse us. So when I got the call that I'd been chosen for Women at Sundance, I let out a massive 'phew!' I'm not so worried I'll slip through the cracks now.”
We spoke further about Memories of a Penitent Heart, including the exhausting marathon of reapplying to grants multiple times, how to quell your subjects’ anxiety when the world is about to witness their story, and what it takes to take on your own family’s hardest truths and share them with the world.
NFS: It seems like making this film about your family was even more of a challenge than a regular documentary. Why did you do this to yourself?
Aldarondo: You know, I ask myself that question all the time. I've learned throughout this process that I have an inordinate capacity to handle brutality. I think that filmmaking can be such a brutal process, but I have a high tolerance for pushing myself beyond certain limits.
I also like talking about hard things. I'm not a secret keeper. I'm not one of those people who feels like they need to hold things back. If anything, I would say I tend to skew too far in the other direction, sharing too much.
I've always been attracted to difficult things. I have an activist background. People have often told me that I have an over-inflated sense of justice. A sense of “something's wrong here and I have to do something about it.” I think a lot of that drove me to decide to make a film that was so intense and so personal.
NFS: You might not be, but you had to get all these people to participate in your film who might have been reluctant to have difficult conversations on camera. What did you say to them about it?
Aldarondo: There were people who didn't want to speak to me, that never will. People that knew my uncle and probably witnessed some difficult things. Honestly, that's part of the wider story of this film. There are a lot of people who were really traumatized by these kinds of experiences, particularly around the height of the AIDS crisis.
I don't fault people for not wanting to talk. In the case of my mom and Aquin [her uncle’s partner], who are the central people, they really wanted to talk. My mom had moments of feeling challenged. It’s a really weird thing to undertake and to agree to be a part of.
“We were in post for well over a year. I was living with these people on a daily basis, but they're kind of in the dark about what's happening.”
With Aquin, he’d been waiting 25 years to talk about this stuff. He never had any questions about being interviewed or any hesitation at all. I think he hadn't felt heard by my family in particular for years and had spent a long time feeling invisible. If anything when I first met him, it was like this outpouring. It was like my uncle had just died. We sat for hours. He would just comb through things and show me love letters and photographs.
If anything, it's sort of what happened after, when it becomes real. It's like, “Oh, this is a movie. We're in this.” This happens a lot with documentaries in particular where you can be in post for forever. We were in post for well over a year. I was living with these people on a daily basis, but they're kind of in the dark about what's happening. In both of their cases, it got real when there was a movie that people were going to see.
NFS: How did you coach them before the screenings?
Aldarondo: Tacoma Film Festival does this really great thing with The Filmmaker Magazine 25 filmmakers list where they'll fly out all the filmmakers on that list and invite them to screen their work at the festival, so we did a secret rough cut screening there. I brought my mom. I thought it might help her to see the film with an audience to get a sense of why this film could matter to people.
The night before the screening, I got cold feet. I sent the cut to my two sisters, and I was like, “Can you guys watch this and tell me what you think Mom's going to say?” They called me back right away and said she needs to see it alone. So she did. She wanted to. It was really good because it prepared her.
Then with Aquin, I flew out to L.A. and we watched it together at his house. He loved it. I was terrified, obviously.
NFS: I bet he cried.
Aldarondo: You know he didn't. He was really happy. He cried a lot when we first met. I think he did all his crying then.
NFS: In addition to talking to family, you had to cast people to play your own family members who you knew and loved in real life for the voiceovers. What was that process like?
Aldarondo: Sort of a DIY operation. Very much on the fly and by instinct. [Broadway actor] Olga Merediz is the voice of my grandmother. I met her through a mutual friend. I literally went to her house with a Zoom and a lav and was like, “Can we try this?”
I needed someone to become my grandma. She's Tony-nominated so she knows what she's doing. She's the right age. She's Cuban, but her accent is very similar to a Puerto Rican accent. It just worked.
We used that as temp for a while and then we went to a sound studio. She just came in and did it as a favor. She's like, “I got 20 minutes, chop chop.” She did it. Then she left. It was awesome. She just nailed it. I've never worked with actors so this is new to me.
With my uncle, it was the opposite. I knew that it needed to be someone of the right age that sounded young, but not too young. They needed to be bilingual, but they needed to have a perfect Puerto Rican accent and a perfect English accent because my uncle was completely accent-free.
A filmmaker friend of mine knew a guy. She got him on the phone and I asked him to try it. He came to my house again with the Zoom. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing and we just practiced and practiced and practiced and it was really challenging for him because he had no training. I had actually auditioned a few professional actors for my uncle and it just felt very voice-overy. I really wanted it to feel raw and kind of real. That was just us sitting there. I was trying to get him to feel it.
"When I first met her I said I want the soundtrack to sound like Rachel’s and she said, 'Oh my god, I used to be in kind of a Rachel’s tribute band.'"
NFS: Speaking of audio, I found the music really powerful. I noticed it more than I do in some other docs, but not in a bad way. It felt like it was like ushering the story along. Who did you work with and what those conversations were like?
Aldarondo: That was another amazing serendipitous collaboration by composer Angélica Negrón. She grew up on the island of Puerto Rico. She lives here now. She's doing her doctorate in composition. She gets this film.
She also happens to have exactly the kind of taste in music that I do. There's a band called Rachel’s. They do like sort of like indie chamber music, and when I would listen to their music, I would see imagery. I thought it was so cinematic. When I first met her, I said I want the soundtrack to sound like Rachel’s, and she said, “Oh my god, I used to be in kind of a Rachel’s tribute band.”
She's very inspired by ideas about childhood and nostalgia and memory. She's a true intellectual. We figured it out. She took a lot of the archival material that we had from my uncle, like his voice, ghostly kind of scratches, and she worked a lot with found material and spliced it into her music. She works between digital and raw.
Initially, we didn't know if we were going to have enough money to work together in the way we wanted. We were able to raise it. We ended up editing longer than we thought, so that bought us some extra time, because with docs in particular, music can just be the last thing you think about, but we had extra time to really work on stuff.
She was so proud of it that she's releasing it as a soundtrack. It was a very, very meaningful part of the film.
“No funder wanted to fund me. I got rejected over and over and over. Like a bajillion times.”
NFS: Speaking of raising the money, you had a pretty impressive list of funders. Do you have advice on how to have that kind of success?
Aldarondo: It's funny because it was my first film. I'm not trained as a filmmaker. I have a background in studying film, but no production background. My sister bought me my first camera. She bought me a 7D in 2012 because she knew I wanted to make this movie. My family really rallied behind me.
I did a Kickstarter and raised $27,000 on Kickstarter, but no funder wanted to fund me. I got rejected over and over and over. Like a bajillion times. The next year, I did an IndieGoGo campaign for the same movie. It just kept getting rejected. I mean, the grant world is completely thankless and unforgiving. It was just honestly relentless persistence and we found ways to keep going.
I was basically well into post before we got our first grant. We had been editing off and on for almost a year. The first thing we got was a residency at the MacDowell Colony. My editor [Hannah Buck] and I went together and we experimented for a month. Really played around. That was when we really figured out the aesthetic of the film and started mapping out the story structure.
While we were at MacDowell, I found out we'd gotten Sundance funding. Sundance was our first grant money. I was sending out the same reel to everybody and getting rejected. I didn't know anybody. I didn't have connections. Everybody talks about how the game is rigged, but I didn't have those relationships. Sundance saw what they saw and they believed in it. They have been completely steadfast. That was the first big grant that we got.
They invited us to the festival in 2015 where we did a pitching forum type thing. That was really special and then other people started coming around. Firelight Media came on board. That was extremely instrumental. Then we got into IFP last. I got rejected from IFP three years in a row.
“I like to say that filmmaking is like a marathon where they keep changing the mileage.”
NFS: I don't know whether to be encouraged or discouraged by this story.
Aldarondo: I like to say that filmmaking is like a marathon where they keep changing the mileage. You think it's 26 miles. They’re like, “Nope 40. Nope, it's 100. Nope, it's 150.” I mean, I thought I was going to be done with this movie years ago.
I cannot tell you how much time I spent feeling frustrated because I didn’t get into certain festivals or whatever. That's disappointing, but you have to learn to take rejection. I can tell you that I went from feeling really alone and like I wasn't a real filmmaker to having POV at my world premiere. That happened.
NFS: In terms of advice, what would you say to people who are considering telling their family story or a personal story on film?
Aldarondo: The first thing I would say is prepare yourself. Make sure you have a backbone. Make sure that you are willing to listen, to tend. It's an incredibly frightening and vulnerable process. You have to be willing to take what comes.
I can't walk away from this subject. It's not like the safe distance. Even though documentarians in particular very often have a lifelong obligation to their subjects, there's a big difference there. I have to go home. I think you need to be aware of that, and treat people with respect and dignity and be willing to listen to their needs along the way.
“When you start to become a real filmmaker in their eyes, that can be a very challenging moment.”
Also, be prepared that it might be confusing to your family. When you start to become a real filmmaker in their eyes, that can be a very challenging moment. For my family, when they realized I was a director and I was hiring people and I was a boss, but when I started out I was just their sister, their daughter…that’s not an easy transition.
This process is not for the faint of heart, but it can be incredibly rewarding.
NFS: You and I met through Film Fatales, so I want to ask you about that community and how it helped usher the film along.
Aldarondo: The most helpful thing I've gotten out of Film Fatales has been relationships. It's a great place for meeting talented, robust, intelligent people with great projects who will actually help you. That's something that I find really important.
One of the things I feel compelled to talk about is that we have a lot of conversations right now about diversity in the filmmaking world. I think it's amazing that 33% of the films at Tribeca were directed by women, but the numbers for people of color are a bit small. I don't think that they're worth claiming.
For me, as a woman of color, I feel it's really important to talk about the way I've been supported by Firelight Media, for example. They have three films at Tribeca this year. They have done panels on our behalf. They have really fought to try and increase the visibility of filmmakers of color.
These are all communities that need to exist in sort of an intersectional way. They need to have that crossover to just fight the good fight, to make sure that we're all getting our work made and seeing that we exist on a level playing field because that's the impetus behind Fatales. Behind Firelight. These organizations all need to coexist and work together.
NFS: Sometimes the films made by women or people of color have lower budgets and can't afford a publicist, for example. If I'm getting 50 publicist emails before a festival, I have to work that much harder as a journalist to find the films I didn't get the emails from.
Aldarondo: Exactly. I think that this is about structural barriers. I'm Puerto Rican, but I also came from a relatively privileged background economically. I have infrastructure. I have a family. I told you my sister bought me a camera. I'm not working class. I think it's also important to talk about this in terms of class. That includes white people.
It goes all the way back to grade school. If students don't have the access to opportunity by the time they're ten years old, from day one they are up against more, and so I feel like it takes a consciousness and I think it also takes us as a community raising that consciousness in a loving and supportive way, holding the powers that be accountable and saying let's work together. It's not like you necessarily need to be super combative about it, but we need to keep having this conversation.
I was obsessively watching Project Greenlight last year. I couldn't look away because there's this amazing moment where Matt Damon says, "You don't diversify behind the camera. You diversify in front of it." Do you know how many stories get told about people of color or marginal communities by people who are from those communities?
NFS: Not too many.
Aldarondo: Right. It’s a huge issue. We need to just keep working.
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