How would you describe Memories of a Penitent Heart?
It is an excavation of the buried conflict in my family around my Uncle Miguel’s death. My Uncle Miguel died when I was very young, only six years old. I barely knew him, but I grew up with this rumors about his death, which as I got older didn’t sit very well with me. I heard these stories: that he was gay; that he had this boyfriend who disappeared when he died; no one knew where he was; and that he repented of being gay on his deathbed.
As I got older I decided that there was something not quite right about the way my Uncle was being remembered, and so the film is an attempt to uncover this lost history of my Uncle’s life--my uncle's other life, as I like to think about it--and both map out the factors that created this conflict in my family in the first place, and give my uncle the space to be remembered that he never had. I was really trying to figure out: what does it mean to look back on these moments now with generations worth of hindsight, and whether we can do anything differently. In many ways it is an archival exploration but is also very much a film about the past as it matters in the present.
Documentaries often explore the relationship between filmmaker and subject. In your film you touch on some of the deepest, hardest topics to talk about with family. What was it like navigating the line between this documentary and your family life?
The line between the documentary and my family life is ever-shifting, and at times hard to even draw. I think that in a traditional documentary framework, there is a clearer division of roles, and also a degree of distance between director and subject. In this case, it was a process of me and my family members dialoguing and trying to understand who I was in my family as the filmmaker. That shifted as the film was being made. I started out making the film as a daughter, sister, family member, and I emerged at the end as a documentary director, and that was sometimes a very painful process. Suddenly, something that was very casual, and a bit of an experiment, turned into a much bigger thing. For example with my mom--who was a very central character in the film--was very involved from the beginning. She helped with the research and developing the idea, and then at some point in the story she became the subject and I was a director. That was very hard for us to navigate.
I will say that my biggest confusion in making the film was trying to understand the role that I played in the story. I wanted to maintain a safe distance and think of myself not as a character within the drama; I didn’t understand until deep into the process of making the film, that there was no way for me to maintain that safe distance anymore. By virtue of the fact that I was asking these questions and asking people to answer them, I was playing a very decisive role. That became a very confusing, but important part of making the film.
The story of a documentary often comes together in the editing process. What kind of editing choices and strategies did you and your team come up with for Memories of a Penitent Heart?
I got very lucky in that I had a very close collaboration with my editor. A lot of the initial aesthetic choices that we made (like determining the style of the film and the initial mapping of the story) happened when my editor and I got a joint residency at the McDowell Colony. We went there for a month together, took all the archival material that we had, and played around it for a whole month. We had a very experimental process in the beginning. We watched loads of films, we brainstormed, we talked, and that was a really formative part; it was really helpful to create a space of trial and error.
As we went along, one of the things that was hard for me was that sometimes the need to tell the story got in the way of my urge to maintain a degree of poetry and lyricism. The brut need to shape a character, or get this bit of information in, or create this plot point, sometimes got in the way of style. I felt that was one of the things that was very hard for us. We had to build the scaffold--the structure of the story--to figure out what the story was, and then we were able to play around a lot more. That was really challenging for me, but I feel like we were able to strike a balance ultimately.
I always said that I wanted to make a film that my parents wouldn’t fall asleep during, and that was really my guiding principal to tell a story that was watchable. However, sometimes that story would tyrannize my more artistic desires. That was a big part of what we had to do, and I was extremely lucky to have a team like the one I did. We were also selected to be a part of the Sundance Institute Story Lab, where they brought us to Utah for a week, and were lucky to have a team of advisors there who helped shape our edit as well. For me, a part of it was learning how to surrender, listen to feedback, and be willing to try things out.
How did you get into documentary filmmaking? Is this your first film?
In my early 20’s I worked at the Florida Film Festival, and was involved in the documentary programming. That was sort of a crash course in documentary cinema (although I didn’t know it at the time), and it got me really interested in the world of filmmaking. I was already writing a chapter of my dissertation about the family archive that the film draws on. The more time I spent with this material, the more I thought about my Uncle, and it became clear to me--as I was sifting through all of this stuff--that there was a narrative. I wasn’t initially sure what form this project should take, but it seemed to me that a long-form, feature-length documentary was ultimately the best way to tell the story for a number of reasons. It takes a linear form with chapters, and there are different sides to the story. You can follow twists and turns in a narrative. It has characters. It was all these things, and I felt that it was a story that was going to matter ideally to an audience like my own family. I didn’t want it to be a traditional academic piece, because it wouldn’t necessarily reach my family in that way, and so I wanted to make a film that could reach a wider audience.
The rest of the filmmaking, the practicalities, I learned along the way. It was really a crash course in training myself about a whole world of budgets, and cameras, and crew, and grant applications, and all of these things that I knew nothing about when I started. This project was my “trial by fire” on all of the pragmatics of it. I had never made a film before, but I had studied film for a very long time. When I was studying for my PhD, one of my areas of examination was documentary film. I had to watch tons of films, read a ton about documentary, and then I was tested in that area. By the time I developed this film, I knew what I liked. I knew what films I was interested in, I knew about aesthetics, and all of these kinds of things really informed my choices for Memories of a Penitent Heart.
What do you think makes Memories of a Penitent Heart such a universal story?
The first thing I would say is very simple. Everybody has a family. That is one of the most universal things, along with the fact that we’re all going to die. We are all born of somebody, and we’re all born with people that we can’t choose. In that sense, I think of Miguel’s story as a cautionary tale in the sense that it is an interesting story, but not just that. It is emblematic of a series of events and dynamics that were in fact extraordinarily widespread throughout the AIDS crisis, and continue today in the families where stigma is powerful or where people aren’t talking openly about difficult issues. One of the things that I set out to do from the beginning was that I didn’t want this to just be a story that was intriguing for my family; I wanted it to be an empathy exercise where people could imagine or start to think about things in their own lives. Now, that seems to be the case, where I see a lot of people respond to the film by talking about “Oh, I had an uncle, too,” or “This reminds me of somebody that I know.” There are thousands of similar stories out there and this is just one of them. Miguel’s story really enables a more collective re-examination, if that makes sense.
Caitlin Mavromates is a graduate of Bard College (‘16) in New York. She now resides in Los Angeles pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking.