A Filmmaker Uses Never-Seen Footage To Tell Her Gay Uncle's Powerful Story

James Michael Nichols

When Cecilia Aldarondo’s mother called to tell her daughter that she found a box of old film while cleaning out her garage, she had no idea of the queer history laying at her fingertips.

What Aldarondo discovered was a cinematic treasure trove of film documenting the life of her uncle, Miguel Dieppa, a gay man from Puerto Rico whose death in 1987 was the source of family rumors and mysteries her whole life.

Aldarondo underwent a highly personal journey to rework the film discovery into “Memories of a Penitent Heart.” The project is a personal interrogation into her uncle’s death, his career as an actor in New York City, his love life as an openly gay man, and the pressure he faced from his mother to repent of his homosexuality on his deathbed ― a death likely brought on by HIV/AIDS-related complications.

The film, “Memories of a Penitent Heart,” examines the life of Miguel Dieppa (right), who died in 1987.   (American Documentary Inc)

“I think that we tend to separate the personal and the political in our world,” Algarondo told HuffPost. “The family, for example, is kind of ground zero for a lot of the ways that injustice can get perpetuated. And so, particularly when we are talking about LGBTQ issues, very often it’s at home where some of these issues remain unresolved or remain the most challenging. And so it’s not necessarily as simple as say something you might put on a poster or a vote you might cast – it might be about very complicated interrelations between people. The film really tries to ask us to think about how it is that our own very intimate relationships set the stage for our actions out into the world.”

Check out HuffPost’s full interview with Aldarondo below.

HuffPost: Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of this project? How did it come about? What was the source of inspiration for you?

Cecilia Aldarondo: This is my first film – I kind of became a filmmaker through this project. Basically, my mom was cleaning out her garage in 2008 when she came across a box of 8-millimeter home movies and several hundred slides. And she knew that I was sort of the family cinephile and she called me up – she didn’t know what to do with this stuff and she called me and said, “Do you want it? I’ll make you a deal, if you can put it on DVDs so I can see what’s on here you can do whatever you want with it.”

At that point, little did I know what was going to come of it. I stated looking through these old home movies where they depicted my mom’s houses in Puerto Rico from the 1950s through the ’70s and as I was looking through these images of my family history, I started seeing images of my uncle and remembering him. He died when I was only 6 years old so I barely got to know him, but I grew up with these kind of legendary stories about him. He was an actor who wanted to make it on Broadway whose life was cut tragically short at the age of 31 in 1987. And the more I thought about him and the way my family talked about him, I started to feel kind of increasingly troubled at this story that people were telling because the other side of the story was that he was gay and that he left behind a partner and that he may have had AIDS. Essentially I started really asking questions about the family rumors about my uncle’s death. And so basically that’s the sort of genesis or the heart of this film, which is essentially an excavation of the family conflict around his death with a generation’s worth of hindsight. 

During his lifetime, Dieppa was an actor in New York whose dream was to make it on Broadway.  (American Documentary Inc)

In that way, it’s clearly a really highly personal project for you. Can you talk to me a bit about that process of using something so personal and close to your family to kind of comment on a more macro-cultural moment?

Absolutely. This is definitely a personal story, but I think of it as a kind of cautionary tale. So it’s not just that something interesting happened in my family, but I think of it as an exemplar of so many similar stories that happened ― particularly during the AIDS crisis ― but I would say even continue today in families where sexuality and religion come into conflict.

And so, on that level it’s a personal story but it’s always looking out on the social and more universal issues of family acceptance. So, at the same time, while making a film like this, I think documentarians like to cherish ideals of objectivity of maintaining a safe distance between director and subject – that kind of thing. But when you’re making a personal documentary, those divisions are really hard to sustain. The reality is I was digging into really painful issues in close proximity with my family and in collaboration with my family. So, for example, my mom, we started the project almost as collaborators – she was really interested in the project, really intrigued. She was helping me do research and look for my uncle’s partner with me. Sort of through the course of making this film, I went from being her daughter to being a kind of professional filmmaker. And so that process was very challenging at different points – not least because I was effectively kind of putting her immediate family in such scrutiny. But she was very courageous and open, and I have to credit her for that. 

"My aim with making this film was always in the hopes that not only would people find my family interesting," Cecilia Aldarondo told HuffPost, "but would see themselves on screen or would see something that triggered an experience that they themselves could relate to or had had in their own lives."  (American Documentary Inc)

Why do you think that having these kind of really authentic and emotional portrayals of personal narrative during the AIDS crisis is so important?

I think for a number of reasons, not least because people relate to other people. My aim with making this film was always in the hopes that not only would people find my family interesting, but would see themselves on screen or would see something that triggered an experience that they themselves could relate to or had had in their own lives. So I think that there’s a way by hitting a really kind of intense, emotional note in a film – it’s a way into accessing people’s deepest emotions about something. It’s not taking a clinical or academic kind’ve perspective.

What are the biggest takeaways that you want people to have from this film?

I think my ultimate goal is for people to see themselves in the film. I don’t just want people to just watch this film and say, “Wow, that was interesting.” And so, with that, it has been really meaningful for me to screen the film in a lot of different contexts with queer audiences, with families, with people who are either still religious or formerly religious. And, to me, I think the ultimate biggest question that the film poses really comes back to my uncle who is at the heart of the story. The film focuses on his final moments of life. And, to me, to biggest question is, what would you do on your deathbed? Because I think this is a film that’s very much about the choices that we make in life that we may not be able to undo – or what happens when we have a chance to actually reckon with the past before it’s too late. So, I think that will be the biggest question that I would want people to ask themselves ― what would I want to do before it’s too late?

Presented by Latino Public Broadcasting and POV, “Memories of a Penitent Heart” is presented free on PBS.org.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.