High school is a battlefield, no one gets out unscathed. So why decide to enmesh yourself in that world for the sake of entertainment? Director Cecilia Aldarondo is no stranger to mining the past for new revelations. Her 2016 documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart” focused on Aldarondo’s quest to learn more about her uncle Miguel, who struggled with identity and his sexuality within a strict Catholic upbringing. Now, the director turns the camera on herself for her HBO documentary, “You Were My First Boyfriend,” premiering Saturday at the SXSW Film Festival.
The documentary was a tough sell with its focus on Aldarondo’s own high school experiences and how, as a fortysomething adult, she still finds herself haunted by the emotional trauma she experienced during that time. The documentary is as funny as it is heartbreaking and for the filmmaker it’s stories like these that often hit audiences. “I’ve always been interested in archetypal stories, or if there’s a story about one person’s life it’s meant to be something that resonates,” she told TheWrap. “Personal films, they only work if people can relate, otherwise it’s just narcissism.”
Aldarondo talked exclusively to TheWrap about the struggles to get “You Were My First Boyfriend” made, the ways people can peak in high school, and how she hopes her former classmates will take the documentary. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why insist on putting yourself through this reliving of your high school experience?
One of the things I say a lot when I was trying to get the film made is “I go home so you don’t have to.” I’ve always been interested in archetypal stories or if there’s a story about one person’s life, it’s meant to be something that resonates. Personal films, they only work if people can relate, otherwise it’s just narcissism. How many people are out there who are like me? Who are outsiders? Because one of the things I came to understand by making this film is how the hierarchy and the politics of high school separate us from one another so there’s that sense of “I’m the only one.” It’s kind of like a lost tribe of people that we run away and we don’t necessarily keep up with people. Why would I want to? Why would I go back there? Even the thought of it makes my skin crawl, so why would I go back there?
Part of the reason I made this film was, frankly, to be less lonely, to feel like I wasn’t internalizing it as my fault. As far as why do people hang on to this stuff? Because it hurts. One of the things I was trying to address is the kinds of harms I experienced growing up are not wildly dramatic; I didn’t get physically abused. I didn’t get beat up. It’s much more insidious. There’s this idea of “Oh, what’s the big deal?” And that is actually something that I want to push back against. It is a big deal. I’m almost wary of people who are like, “Oh, I’m totally over it” or “[high school] was great.”
Hollywood, historically, isn’t easy for women, especially ones who are already of color. When you were in school what drew you to film knowing the deck is already stacked against you?
I arrived at filmmaking not necessarily looking to make a ton of money or be at the epicenter of Hollywood. I I fell in love with filmmaking in a very independent way. I come from having studied experimental film, DIY film and no-budget filmmaking. So, in that sense, even though I was very acutely aware of how, as you say, the deck was stacked against me the way I got into filmmaking was pretty instinctual. I stole my first camera from the school that I was studying at and took it to Puerto Rico, that’s how I shot part of “Memories of a Penitent Heart.” If we’re looking for those institutions to give us permission to get started then we’ll never get started.
This is partly why I believe fiercely in building my own lunch table as a filmmaker, thinking about how we hired for this project and who we hired. I was in an extremely lucky position to have HBO behind me to make this film and I tried to use that as strategically as possible in terms of who we brought onto the team. We had a really diverse team across ethnicity, across gender, across sexuality. It was really funny because, at one point, we realized that only two of our crew members had been cool in high school and everybody else had been bullied and a huge nerd, and so we were making fun of that. We’re like, “Oh, my God, prom queen! Oh, my God, that’s so embarrassing.”
Part of the lessons of this film for me played out also in the making of it where I got to find my people and that can be one of the most gratifying things if you have the opportunity as a filmmaker to build that. But I also am very painfully aware of just how hard it is. Even now I’m like, “am I gonna get another chance to do this?”
Was this a tough sell for HBO or those who helped finance it?
It was really tough. When I first got the idea for this film I was told by a very supportive gatekeeper who was like, “I love this project” and they were like, “This is going to be extremely hard to get funded.” That became very true. My producer and I, we pitched this film dozens of times for four or five years. We went to markets; we had one-on-ones; we did film festival networking. I made an entire other feature. I started this project before my second feature was even in my mind. We’ve gotten like a few tiny little grants from Sundance, from IFP, but I was putting my own money into getting us sample material. And we just reached this point where we had a few good things in the can and we’re like, “Well, we can make a short.”
It was at that moment we had people who believed in us, and one of them was Cinereach and Leah Giblin, who’s not there anymore, but she was always, like, “I believe in this project.” They basically brokered an intro to HBO, but everybody passed. Netflix passed. Hulu passed. But HBO got it, immediately got it. When I pitched it to them I made a PowerPoint and it was my head cut out and put on a body of Tori Amos. It was the most crude, ridiculous thing and they were like, “This is so weird, but we love it.” It’s a real eye of the needle kind of situation because I came this close to never making this film.
Teens today are so often presented on-screen in a manner that feels so exaggerated. How do you look at adolescence in media, especially while working on this?
It’s not necessarily readily apparent on the surface but this film came out of a very deep, deep research process, along with my co-director, Sarah Hagey, who has an encyclopedic understanding of all things teen from all generations. We both were big fans of teen movies. We watched every teen movie we could find, high, low, from the ’70s, from the ’80s, stuff you’ve never heard of, stuff that’s canonical at this point. This film is, at its heart, an intergenerational film. It’s about a person going back to her adolescence, so there’s young me and present day me, but also, because of that, I’m playing myself. I was also working with teenagers.
Pretty much everybody we cast was actually high school age. I don’t have kids and I don’t actually spend that much time with teenagers, so to be immersed in this adolescent world and see how many things are consistent and different between our generations. One of the great joys of making this film was I realized how much society had pushed me to make fun of my younger self, or disavow my younger self. We’re taught that you have to get over being a teenager. Also, we mock teens all the time; they don’t know what they’re doing [and] they’re proto-adults who are fumbling around. It was so great to be like, “Oh, teenagers are awesome. Teenagers know who they want to be.”
You Were My First Boyfriend screens at SXSW on March 10. It airs on HBO later this year.