Faculty Spotlight: Cecilia Aldarondo
Fresh off a huge victory at the 2015 Paley Center for the Media Doc Pitch Competition, Assistant Professor Cecilia Aldarondo has plenty to celebrate. On top of being a new member of Skidmore's English Department, Aldarondo is an accomplished and practicing documentary filmmaker. Her current project, Memories of a Penitent Heart, which she's directing and producing, takes viewers back in time to explore her family's secret history.
"Twenty-five years after Miguel died of AIDS, his niece tracks down his gay lover and cracks open a Pandora's box of unresolved family drama."
Aldarondo sat down with MDOCS Student Representative Sam Grant '18 to discuss her film, her transition into Skidmore life and her advice for aspiring independent filmmakers.
I guess I should start by saying congratulations! How are you feeling coming out of this big win?
You know I'm a little bit dizzy! It's a really strange experience. I've never pitched to that many people. I've pitched my film a lot to people sitting across the table from me, often in a one-on-one situation, but I've never done it on stage. Another thing is that four out of the five judges that decided the award were ones that I had already pitched to previously in different ways, so the good thing is that I knew them, but the bad thing is that I knew them. That was a little scary, I mean, these are people who hold my fate in their hands, they decide the fates of films, you know? They're very powerful people.
And then not to mention, on top of everything you have going on with your film, there's the additional challenge of having to adjust to an entirely new environment here at Skidmore. How are you settling in?
I'm definitely settling in (laughs). You know, it's a lot. Part of this is that it's my first time teaching in a small liberal arts setting. I have taught at a small arts school, but that was a different kind of climate. The experience of getting to know Skidmore students, because they have their particular needs and personalities, is great. I mean everyone's different of course, but there are certain consistencies of culture on campus, so that's a big part of the adjustment, learning that students here are different from the students I'm used to teaching in a lot of ways.
The Media and Film Studies Program is still on the rise, but you've made your home in the English Department. How are you staying connected to both the English and the media and film studies spheres?
The department itself places an emphasis on film, and was looking specifically for someone who specializes in film. My orientation in film goes beyond the English department; there's a lot of really interesting things happening on campus right now with MDOCS and Project Vis, so I very much see my presence on campus as being a part of those projects, wanting to contribute to the development of visual studies on campus. Another thing is that I did English for my undergrad, so in a way it's kind of like I'm coming home to this place where everyone's studying literature all around me. But yeah, it's also been an adjustment, I mean it's been a while since I've really been in a literary environment, so that's really interesting.
How are you balancing your classroom work with the work your film demands?
The blessing and the curse is that my filmmaking currently has a momentum that I have to keep up with. I've gotten a lot of support in the last few months. In the last short while, we've gotten funding from the Sundance Institute, from Firelight Media, from New York State Council for the arts ... a bunch of different supporters. We were in the IFP Labs, which is a certain honor that selects five projects every year ... basically the great thing is that my film has actually started to get some traction, but what that means is that you have to strike while the iron is hot. So my team and I are interested in this big push to finish. At the same time, I'm starting this position here at Skidmore. I didn't plan it that way, and it is partly circumstantial where things have aligned. So I wouldn't recommend finishing a film and starting a teaching job at the same time, but everybody's been really accommodating at the same time.
It's all the more impressive just how much of yourself there is in your film. It's very much a personal story that delves into your intimate family details. Why share this project with your students? On top of that, who is this film meant to be for?
I feel like part of my job as a teacher is to tell my classes how things are going, because I want to introduce you to that side of what I'm doing. This film has a lot of universal themes. It's a film about family, even though it's a film about specific conflicts in my family. Everyone has a family. It also deals with particular issues, like the AIDS crisis and issues that LGBTQ individuals face. Religion. It's a film about family secrets, everybody's got those. That being said, it's told in a particular style that's very artful. I have a background in visual art, as well as film, and I love experimental film, so it has a style of its own that's not necessarily for everybody. I don't expect this to be a mainstream Blockbuster. It's also trying to tease out a lot of nuanced issues, and so I imagine it's going to be something that means a lot to people who want to take the time to experience it.
Is there any advice about filmmaking that you were given that has stuck with you, or any advice you'd like to pass on to your students?
Well, one piece that really stuck with me, that was given to me, was that I was advised not to go to film school. Granted I was already getting my Ph.D. at the time, it would have been overkill to also aim for an M.F.A., but a very accomplished filmmaker (I was considering applying for his M.F.A. program) said "Why are you here? Go make films. You don't need a film degree to do that." And I think he really saved me a lot of time and money and encouraged me to pursue my dreams independently. Film school can be great for certain people, but I think there's a certain assumption that if you want to be a filmmaker, you need a degree to do it, and that can be so expensive and so cost-prohibitive that I think this day and age there are just so many things an aspiring filmmaker can do on their own. I would also say, for documentary projects, be prepared to undertake a marathon that never ends. It requires persistence. Documentary filmmaking is so underfunded, and so thankless, and can really evolve over a number of years, it requires an incredible amount of tenacity and refusal to give up.
As far as your first year at Skidmore goes, big or small, what goals do you have for now until May?
To get to know the school as well as possible, to understand what preexists me, and to get the hang of it, for the sake of everybody. There's a learning curve, which is good because I make a million mistakes everyday, but then in terms of my own work, I want to get my film out into the world at the same time. I want to do things without regret.
For more information about Aldarondo's film, check out www.penitentheart.com. If your interests have been piqued, check out Aldarondo's film class (EN 217) this spring.