Cecilia Aldarondo’s uncle Miguel died of AIDS-related illness in the mid-1980s when she was 6. She barely knew him, and then he was gone. Moreover, Miguel’s truth was obliterated. His life as a gay man? Just a “disease.” His longtime partner, Robert? Not even a mention in the obituary.

Fast forward 30 years. Set against the backdrop of dense cultural and rigid Catholic influences, Miguel’s niece exposes the family’s buried secrets in her captivating film Memories of a Penitent Heart, which played this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and continues its rollout throughout 2016. In the touching doc, the first-time filmmaker reunites the remaining members of her family for a series of interviews, along with revealing historical context, to uncover the truth about the uncle she never knew. Here is her story, in her own words:

The catalyst. My mom found some 8mm home movies in the garage and that actually preceded my desire to find things out. Also, my grandfather had passed away the year before and there was a lot of stuff around his death. When somebody has just died, everyone is still mourning them and talking about them, so that was around the same time. It started out as more idle conversations. The more I talked about [my uncle] with my mother and other family members, I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m not very comfortable with this.”

The first shoot. I started filming in 2011. I went to Puerto Rico with some friends and we literally just stole some cameras from school and flew to Puerto Rico. We filmed in the cemetery where my uncle was buried. I had no idea what it was at that point. It really was me chasing a series of hunches for a really long time.

The crisis. I approached making the film by doing as much research as possible. I was born in 1980, so I was a kid when AIDS was becoming an epidemic and it was in the background for me. AIDS and my uncle were these ghostly presences but not something I really understood. From the very beginning of making the film I just started reading as much as I could and seeing as many films as I could as a way to familiarize myself with the context in which he was existing. I started with reading [Randy Shilts’] And the Band Played On, and I just remember weeping throughout the whole book, because I knew it was bad… I just didn’t know how bad.

052316MIGUEL2The importance of ‘being generous toward one another.’ I think in so many stories of discrimination — not just LGBT discrimination but any kind of discrimination — we can often get very black and white about who the victim is and who the perpetrator is. What I would like this film to make possible is for people who see it to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, whether it’s a parent who has a gay child and doesn’t know how to talk to them or the opposite — a gay person who has a lot of resentment toward a family member. How can these people try to come to a mutual understanding and be generous toward one another?

‘You just changed my life.’ There’s one guy, a longtime survivor who lost a lot of people during the peak crisis years, and he said the film enabled him to look at things that he’s been scared to look at for years. Another guy, a 20something Puerto Rican guy, came up to me after the second screening in tears and was like, “You just changed my life.” He was like, “I was seeing my own story on the screen.” Those are the kinds of things where I’m like, “OK, I’m done.”

There’s all this intense pressure around, where’s the film gonna go next? And what are the critics saying? Ultimately, none of that matters. What I wanted was for people to look at their own lives and their own stories, and if people are having those kind of reactions, that tells me I’m doing something right.

Her hope. People have asked me, “What do you want people to do when they see this film?” I say, “I want them to pick up the phone and call somebody they might not know how to talk to or maybe just put your stuff aside for a second and try and actually connect with somebody.” That’s my Pollyannaish hope. But I do think that there are a lot of different ways to transform society, and one of the ways to transform society is at the most intimate level.

Her mother’s journey to acceptance. I think for my mom this is a very scary and challenging thing. She’s a product of her time; there are still things she can’t get her head around, but she’s really invested and grateful for what this film can do for people. She really wants to promote love and acceptance, and I think we do agree on the principle of what the film is trying to achieve. But we still disagree. She doesn’t see things the way I do, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want this film to help her change, to help the world change. I think she wants to be an advocate for mutual understanding between LGBT people and their families. I think she believes very strongly in that.

Seeing the film with her family. It was kind of insane. The Florida Film Festival screening was in my hometown — I grew up in Orlando — and so my entire family came out for it. It was a crazy thing that this movie was, like, splashing our history on the screen and everybody was just so happy about it.

A different kind of activism. I always had this feeling my uncle was cool. I grew up in the suburbs. I didn’t have any artist role models and I had this uncle who died, who was living in New York, and he was an actor and it just sounded like he was really cool. The more I was learning about the AIDS crisis, I was really hopeful… I wanted him to be in ACT UP or something. I wanted him to be a card-carrying guy who’s, like, in the streets. I didn’t want him to be mainstream. I was really excited when I found out he was into leather!

I wanted this cool uncle, and I was kind of disappointed when I realized that he wasn’t that kind of activist. At the same time, I found these letters where he would write to my grandmother and to my mom, and in these letters he’s so eloquent and so loving, and also grounded and convinced of who he is. He was being an activist with them. He was fighting for himself. That was so amazing to me.

So, I would say it’s less that he was an influence on me and more that I felt that we were working together. There are certain moments where it feels like a collaboration between us. There’s [been] nothing more gratifying than when my dad said to me that my uncle would be proud of me and that is, again, one of those moments where it’s like, I can’t do better than that.

— Chris Azzopardi