Like any good detective story, Cecilia Aldarondo’s Memories of a Penitent Heart began with two things: a mystery and a clue. The mystery was the untimely death of Miguel Dieppa, a young Puerto Rican actor; the clue was a shoebox of decaying 8mm home movies. Although these home movies documented cheery moments like birthdays and vacations, they also prompted Cecilia, Miguel’s niece, to investigate a murky moment in their shared family history: Miguel’s deathbed conflict with his mother, and what had become of Robert, the lover Miguel left behind.
Combining home movies, video and written documents with artfully shot contemporary interviews and vérité footage, Memories of a Penitent Heart is a documentary that cracks open a Pandora’s box of unresolved family drama. The intimate film also encompasses defining historic events and challenging social issues, from the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s to the ongoing tensions between social mores, cultural beliefs and LGTBQI rights today. Though the film is an excavation of history, it is also a potent reminder that HIV/AIDS and LGTBQI stigma are not a thing of the past, especially for people of color and residents of rural communities. The conversation about rights and acceptance of LGTBQI people is ongoing, particularly in places where religion is a powerful cultural factor.
Through Cecilia’s journey to recover her uncle’s story, students will explore how we learn about the past and the many factors that can influence—and at times distort—our understanding of history. In the process, they will examine how the HIV/AIDS crisis in particular shaped negative perceptions of the LGTBQI community that persist today, contributing to growth of the HIV epidemic in low-income communities of color, both rural and urban. Using Cecilia Aldarondo’s investigation as inspiration, students will conduct their own research on narratives from their families or communities and understand the broader historic context in which those occurred.
Check out POV's film page for Memories of a Penitent Heart.