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Cinema Politica shines light on the margins

Arts & Entertainment/Film and TV by

Cinema Politica is a nonprofit network that collects and screens independent documentary films. Its weekly screenings embody the network’s slogan, “screening truth to power,” with films that show solidarity with oppressed voices who often go unheard in mainstream media. The McGill Tribune looks at two of their most recent films, examining stories not often told.

Memories of a Penitent Heart is a heart-wrenching portrait of intergenerational trauma

Sophie Brzozowski

Filmmaker and scholar Cecilia Aldarondo didn’t intend to unearth several decades worth of family conflict when, in 2012, she decided to investigate the life of her estranged uncle. Neither did she anticipate making a documentary that would one day qualify her as an activist. Cinema Politica screened Aldarondo’s 2016 debut film Memories of a Penitent Heart on Feb. 15 at the Maxwell Cummings Auditorium as a part of Concordia University’s annual lecture series on HIV/AIDS. The film follows Aldarondo as she uncovers the life of Miguel Dieppa, an uncle she never knew, who died of AIDS in 1987.

Part tragic love story, part redemptive quest for justice, Aldarondo’s film catalogues the two distinct yet equally-significant lives that Dieppa led. In one, he was a successful Broadway actor, a staple of the New York theater community, and a loving partner to monk-turned-bartender Robert Aquin. In the other, he was the devoted son of a pious Catholic family in Puerto Rico. Neither his partner nor his illness were mentioned in Dieppa’s obituary—even in death, his family refused to accept his sexuality.

“There was a narrative in my family around [Dieppa’s] death, particularly around the fact that he’d died on Easter Sunday,” Aldarondo said during a Q&A that followed the screening. “My grandmother would talk about how miraculous this was. She thought it was a sign, a really big sign.”

In many ways, the crux of Dieppa’s story occurs in the weeks leading up to his death when, at his mother’s request, he saw a priest and confessed to sins of homosexuality. Through a combination of interviews and archival footage, the film captures the torment Dieppa experienced in life: Being torn between two separate worlds and two separate value systems that seemed impossible to reconcile. The question of whether Dieppa’s confession was for himself or for his mother’s sake remains unanswered.

“The film doesn’t resolve this question. I don’t know whether he repented or not,” Aldarondo said. “We can all speculate, everyone around Miguel was speculating on his behalf, but ultimately, to me the bigger question is what did he need? [.…] He did what he needed to do to die in peace.”

Memories of a Penitent Heart is a film that examines the injustice and shame surrounding the AIDS crisis, told through the story of one family. It is a complex and personal documentary that examines the intersection of family, religion, and politics.

Although she considers herself “a recovering Catholic,” Aldarondo confessed that the process of making the film forced her to reconsider her own ideas about religion. Some of the documentary’s most moving scenes were centered on her encounters with Dieppa’s former partner, Robert Aquin, who returned to Catholicism after Dieppa’s death.  

“Some of my favourite [art inspired by the AIDS crisis] is some of the most blasphemous and angry at the Church,” Aldarondo said. “But I think we have this secularization around the narrative of AIDS, and the way in which we talk about this notion that religion was only ever bad for queer people […] the process [of making the film] forced me to see things in a more nuanced way, and if that makes me a little softer and weaker, then I’m ok with that.”

Though Aldarondo was careful never to excuse her family’s intolerance, she made sure to depict it in all its complexity, acknowledging that it was the product of a generational divide and uncompromising faith.

While only 72 minutes in length, Aldarondo’s documentary manages to capture multiple generations worth of pain and grief. Memories of a Penitent Heart is a film about the importance of forgiving without forgetting. It’s also about the eternally-grey area that is the intersection of sexuality and religion, and how it is in many ways futile to fully reconcile the two, but decidedly more important to try.

Complicit investigates the human cost of modern technology

Andrea Kilajian

Complicit, directed by Lynn Zhang and Heather White, had its Montreal premiere with Cinema Politica on Feb. 5.  The documentary focuses on the dangerous conditions factory workers face in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, China, featuring footage shot over the last three years.  

Working in extremely arduous conditions, the electronics factory workers repeat the same task thousands of times a day. During their 13-hour shifts, workers are exposed to benzene—a chemical waste product with cancerous effects. Because of this exposure, many of the workers develop leukemia, with this health crisis only growing.

Complicit follows the story of many migrant workers of different ages who are victims of benzene exposure. Many of the victims are under the age of 30, and live in fear and anxiety.

Shang Jiouajioua is one of the 12 million Chinese teenagers who have left home to find work. Finding solace with other youth fighting the same cancer, Jiouajioua and her friends are afraid of burdening their families with their conditions, and come together to fight against the global electronics industry.

“When I wasn’t sleeping or eating, I would be wiping something,” Shang Jiouajioua said in one interview with the filmmakers. “It was the only thing I did. There was no ventilation or windows.”

To assemble products like the iPhone, Apple deals with Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer. Despite employing 1.3 million workers in 2015, Foxconn factories exhibit an extreme lack of safety measures and horrible working conditions.

“It’s because of Apple that I am dying,” Ming Kunpeng, a 26-year-old leukemia patient and former factory worker, said.

Yi Yeting is a victim of this poisoning himself and has dedicated much of his life to a movement against harmful working conditions. Although he was barred from leaving China because of this “controversial” plea for basic human rights, he was able to raise  awareness of the dangers of benzene exposure from his hospital bed by speaking at a human rights conference in the United States via Skype.

“I don’t want my children to be sick because of working conditions I had,” Yi Yeting said.

His main objective is to establish stricter constraints in Foxconn’s contracts with its clients, emphasizing the necessity of bans on benzene and n-hexane, another dangerous chemical prevalent in factories.

According to Chinese government officials, one person is poisoned by toxic chemicals, notably benzene, every five hours; however, experts say that the frequency is higher. In 2010, there were 14 reported suicides in the electronics manufacturing industry, revealing Foxconn’s overbearing psychological and physical impacts on its workers.

Complicit sheds light on the dangerous world Chinese factory workers step into every day. It provides an insider look on how to fight against the use of benzene.

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