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Skidmore College

Film as healing: Revisiting and reframing AIDS

December 8, 2016
by Brian Allan '17

Family, religion, sexuality, and stigma—these are the themes that pervade Professor Cecilia Aldarondo’s debut documentary, Memories of a Penitent Heart, which catalogues her investigation into her uncle Miguel’s death from AIDS 25 years after the fact. In the film, Aldarondo scours family records in an attempt to uncover the identity of Miguel’s lover, Robert, whom she eventually succeeds in finding. But in unearthing this other half of her uncle’s life, she also unearths the resentments and frustrations experienced by those caught in the crosshairs of faith and sexuality. The result is a powerful document of remembrance, resurfaced suffering, and potential healing.

Cecilia Aldarondo
Cecilia Aldarondo

The film premiered as a selection of the TriBeCa Film Festival in April and was screened in Skidmore’s own Davis Auditorium in November. The screening was followed by a brief but productive conversation between Aldarondo and English Professor Mason Stokes, in which they discussed the film’s production as well as the variety of ways in which it resonates with its viewers. The audience was then invited to ask questions. Aldarondo answered each one earnestly and eagerly.

When asked about the impetus to make the film, Aldarondo coupled her own inherent interest in her family’s past with what she considered to be a somewhat lacking perspective in the canon of HIV/AIDS films. On the process of marketing the film to potential funders, she spoke about the role of national and cultural identity in the context of the AIDS crisis. What differentiates Memories from other documents that frame the AIDS epidemic is the explicitly rendered theme of physical and emotional displacement. Her uncle was a man of two localities—the artist’s world of mid-1980s New York City, where self-definition was within reach, and his childhood world of Puerto Rico, with its traditions of family and of faith. In that regard, the film takes on the enormous challenge of documenting what it is to be so many things at once: an artist, a friend, a brother, the son of religious mother, gay, a Puerto Rican immigrant, HIV positive—the list goes on. It’s Aldarondo’s bravery in confronting this complexity that makes Memories of Penitent Heart so unequivocally effective.

For me, the film is the culmination of a semester’s worth of HIV+AIDS documents: archival footage, documentaries, Hollywood films, scholarly readings—even an audio archive of Diamanda Galás’s Plague Mass, which is over an hour of operatic screaming meant in part to replicate of the experience of AIDS. All of these texts form the curriculum of Aldarondo’s 300-level English class “HIV+AIDS in Film and Media,” in which I’m very gratefully enrolled. And all of these documents—Plague Mass included—have entered into my consciousness the beginnings of an understanding of a crucial moment in history.

Remembering isn’t enough, though, because HIV and AIDS are not something of the past. Watching Professor Aldarondo’s film, and then seeing the media attention to World AIDS day this past Thursday, it’s important to note that this disease is still widespread, especially in communities that are impoverished, marginalized, and all too often ignored. Both domestically and abroad, it’s important to see that there are still lives at stake, that the AIDS crisis isn’t over for everyone.

Aldarondo’s film adeptly captures this tension between the past and the present. The documentary is at once a testament to a life lost, a way of grappling with the implicit conflicts between faith, background, and identity, and an offering of some sort of reconcilable future, whatever that may be. It demands something of us all, specifically that we remember the lives lost from an epidemic perpetuated by an impotent government and a lackluster mainstream media. More broadly, it demands that we not only understand one another, but that we fight for one another—regardless of the stigma.

This goes without saying, but if you get the chance, watch the film—it’s set to appear as a part of PBS’s documentary series POV sometime in 2017. In the meantime, check out the trailer below.

Brian Allan '17 is the 2016–17 student blogger in the Office of Communications and Marketing. A double major in English and Spanish with a minor in media and film studies, he has provided a unique student insight to Life at Skidmore.