Memories of a Penitent Heart
Originally published during BFI Flare 2017
A story about the mistakes of the past and the second chances of the present, MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART is a cautionary tale about the unresolved conflicts wrought by AIDS, and a nuanced exploration of how faith is used and abused in times of crisis.
Hey Cecilia, congratulations on having Memories of a Penitent Heart selected for this years BFI Flare how does it feel to have your film part of the festival?
It feels amazing, honestly. I did my MA at Goldsmiths in 2005 and did a brief stint working in the Publicity department at the 2004 London Film Festival. So to be coming back to the NFT for the UK premiere of Memories of a Penitent Heart is a really incredible honour. It feels a little bit like a hometown screening.
Your film had its Premiere at Tribeca last year, what was that experience like for you?
It was insane and awesome at the same time. So many people came--my entire family, my uncle's partner Aquin, several of my uncle's old friends. It was chaotic and beautiful. And to premiere the film in the city where my uncle lived and died--and such an epicentre of the AIDS crisis--was very meaningful.
Tell me a little bit about Memories of a Penitent Heart, how did the film come about?
In 2008 my mother found a box of 8mm home movies languishing in the garage. She called me up and asked me if I wanted them. I'd never made a film before, but I'd spent years studying film and working at film festivals. So of course, I was happy to take them off her hands. As I looked at these home movies, I started remembering stories I'd heard about my uncle's death. Stories that didn't add up. And I began to dig deeper into his life and death.
Did you know much about your uncle Miguel before you started making the film?
Very, very little. He died when I was only six and I only had vague memories of meeting him. But he made a real impression as this larger-than-life exotic artist-type from the big city. I was always curious to know more about him.
When did you realise that you wanted to make Miguel's story into a film?
Pretty early on I knew that something was amiss in the way my family remembered my uncle. They romanticized him as this great actor, but only whispered about his sexuality. And the more I started asking questions about him, the more I could sense this was going to be a story with many chapters. The multi-faceted storytelling form of a feature documentary quickly made sense as the best way to explore it all.
This is such a personal film for you did you have any apprehensions about making this film before you started filming?
Yes, of course.
How did you feel when you met Robert for the first time?
It was very cathartic and overwhelming for both of us. I felt that I needed to take responsibility for what I felt my family had done to him. And for him, it was as though he could finally unburden himself of 25 years of pent-up grief. He felt vindicated.
What would you say the most challenging part of making this film was for you?
Not knowing when the film ended and my own life began.
Looking back would there be anything you'd do differently?
Of course. Ten million things.
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
I always loved film--but it was this project that made me admit I'd always wanted to make one.
How as your approach to filmmaking evolved since your debut?
That's impossible to say. My life mainly consists of juggling ten million emails, and most days I feel very uncreative. Ask me in 5 years when things have died down a little!
"I hope they will examine the choices they've made in their own lives and hopefully see what they might change, forgive, or let go of while there's still time left."
Are you currently working on that you can tell me about?
I'm working on a film that turns the American High School movie inside out in documentary form. Can't say more than that at the moment--it's very early.
What would you say has been the best advice you've been given?
Don't take rejection personally. It's very rarely about you.
And finally what do you hope people will take away from your film?
I hope they will examine the choices they've made in their own lives and hopefully see what they might change, forgive, or let go of while there's still time left. Regret is a terrible thing.