Cecilia Aldarondo Relived Her High School Traumas on Film So You Don’t Have To

The filmmaker tells Jezebel that the process of making her new hybrid documentary, You Were My First Boyfriend, felt like “an emotional exorcism."

Cecilia Aldarondo Relived Her High School Traumas on Film So You Don’t Have To
Image:HBO Documentary Films

The premise is like something out of a romcom: In order to exorcize her high school demons, a Gen X/millennial cusp filmmaker sets out to recreate certain traumatic moments, at times filming at her actual alma mater. That roughly describes You Were My First Boyfriend, the latest from Cecilia Aldarondo (whose previous films include 2016’s Memories of a Penitent Heart and 2020’s Landfall). In the hybrid doc, which premieres on HBO and Max on Wednesday, Aldarondo appears both as her contemporary self and in character, as a teenager in the ‘90s, recreating key memories from high school that involve being mocked and bullied. She also salutes some of her high school pop culture obsessions, including dressing up as Tori Amos for a shot-by-shot remake of the “Crucify” video and enlisting her partner to play Jordan Catalano to Aldarondo’s Angela Chase in a scene out of My So-Called Life. “What’s the point of wishing that you were somebody else if you don’t get to finally be them?” Aldarondo wonders aloud at one point.

The idea came to her upon her 20th high school reunion in 2017, to which she brought her cameras and was able to capture some of the casual racism she experienced as a woman of Puerto Rican descent in Winter Park, Florida. Then, with the help of co-director, Sarah Enid Hagey, Aldarondo, staged the recreations and, perhaps just as important, she captured the staging of said recreations, documenting the entire process of what she describes in the movie as “an emotional exorcism.” The resulting movie is alternately nostalgic and painful, but always poignant. On a Zoom call with Jezebel, Aldarondo and Hagey described the making of their documentary, attempting to avoid accusations of narcissism, and why going back to high school was fun in addition to being harrowing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: Can you talk about how you conceived this movie?

CECILIA ALDARONDO: My 20th high school reunion was in 2017 and I was sort of circling around that 20-year mark. I felt like I had reinvented myself and I had lived elsewhere and I felt like I was a totally different person, but I was realizing that I was still really haunted by certain things that happened to me. I was like, “What if I actually forced myself to do the very thing I’m most scared to do?” And so I got this kind of wacky idea to do that. The hybrid approach was always there, to go home in real life, but then also what would happen if I reenacted these memories? What would that process yield?

SARAH ENID HAGEY: As we started figuring out what these reenactments were going to be, we started thinking about like, well, let’s place them in teen movie tropes that we can think of. And so the whole time we were watching hundreds and hundreds of teen movies, like Carrie and Mean Girls and Heathers and Pump Up The Volume. We watched other things like this made-for-TV movie called Death of a Cheerleader with Tori Spelling, and this really deep cut, Junior High School. It was really collaborative, but it was really, really experimental in terms of like, OK, we both have doc backgrounds. I have more of a fiction background, but we always knew that these two worlds were going to sort of vibrate off of one another. We were very open with that process.

There’s almost like, a subgenre of these hybrid docs that you’re talking about. Procession, that Netflix movie about abuse in the Catholic Church immediately sprung to mind because the recreation process is so much part of it, as well as that catharsis you’re talking about.

Aldarondo: Totally. What Robert [Greene] does in that film is, I think, similar to what we’re doing. You know, most documentary reenactments are there because you’re missing footage for something that they want to dramatize. You want to add drama, but it’s really supplemental to what you’re trying to do as a documentarian. We’re interested in the process of what happens to the people that are doing the reenacting. It’s much more behind the scenes. It’s really about trying to mine that kind of possibility for healing. I don’t think of this film as therapy. I think of it as therapeutic.

Did you wrestle with or have any kind of philosophy about making yourself the subject of your own documentary?

Aldarondo: Part of what I teach [at university] is personal filmmaking. And so I’ve watched a ton of personal films. And I feel like their biggest pitfall is being accused of narcissism or self-absorption. That’s true of a memoir, any kind of first-person thing. Always the risk is that people are going to be like, “Oh my God, get over yourself. Why are you making an entire movie to process something that’s already maligned in culture, which is teen experience?” So we were always concerned. I mean, even as we’re like doing social media promotion and stuff, having my image on everything is very weird. But this is where I think leaning into the teen movie language really helped because our goal with this was to take the particular and lean into the universal. And so film archetypes really help to tap into that collective memory people have to be like, “Oh, no, no, no, this is me too.” One of the things that I like to say to audiences is: I go home so you don’t have to. Hopefully it gives people this catharsis by proxy. Also, I think this is where humor helps, too. I think there’s something about absurdity where you’re like, poking fun at yourself that helps kind of cut the narcissism a little bit.

Hagey: No idea was too dorky and no idea was too intense. We weren’t like, “Well, is it art?” We wanted a full embrace of pop culture. And I really, really believe that pop culture is very, very powerful. And I think it’s maligned a lot. This film in particular has had sort of an interesting life because a lot of people are like, “Well, what is it?” And I think that’s important.

I don’t think of this film as therapy. I think of it as therapeutic.

Cecilia, you had this really particular high school experience that was tough. But then you reached back out to these people, like, “…And I’m going to bring my camera along.” Was that at all awkward? Was that ill-received at all?

Aldarondo: There are a lot of people who are not in the film. I approached far more people than are in the film. Yeah, it was super awkward. It really never got easier, but it’s sort of the least fun part of it. I think that also in a way, having all of these antagonistic figures turn away and not want to be in the film, was part of the journey that I needed to go on. A big part of what the film is about is “Why do you care what those people think anyway?” So in a way, they did me a favor because the film is really focusing on other people. It gave me space to go, “Oh, actually you’re right. I shouldn’t be thinking about you. I should be thinking about people like [classmate] Jo, who was far more bullied than I was.”

And did it work? Does this stuff still vex you or was the film truly the exorcism that you had hoped it would be?

Aldarondo: I would say the latter. I do feel different. I feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin. It’s not just dealing with the memories, but it’s also dealing with the brutal fact of being on camera. I feel like I have such a deeper understanding of the vulnerability that it takes to participate in a documentary by doing this to myself. What you see in the film specifically around things like body image, it was not thrilling to see myself on camera all the time. I’m not somebody who was like, “I want to be an actor and I want my name in lights,” in that way. I always feared the camera. It’s a sort of version of exposure therapy. I will say that I truly don’t care about in a way that I used to care.

I feel like I have such a deeper understanding of the vulnerability that it takes to participate in a documentary by doing this to myself.

When I’ve worked on projects dealing with my past, the kind of immersion the work calls for is as close to time travel as I can imagine ever getting to. That’s kind of thrilling regardless of the content. I wonder if it felt that way to you ever, Cecilia. Was there an upside to putting yourself through this?

Aldarondo: It’s funny that you say that because, “It’s as close as it gets to time travel,” is what I say about reenactment. You know, one of the principles that we adopted that I kept invoking was what I called Civil War re-enactor realness. Their politics aside, Civil War re-enactors, the diehards, are so obsessed with detail. This button or that stitch or whatever. In the My So-Called Life scenes and the Tori Amos scenes, we were obsessive about all these details. And there is something about using the trappings of theater—wardrobe, hair, makeup, settings, production, all these things—that was very immersive and it was bodily. You know, all the senses were firing. It is like you’re going back there with your body, not just with your mind. It’s both a very real thing and an exercise. And yeah, it was also fun. This is a movie that loves movies. We had a very, very silly crew. Everybody had a sense of humor. I think that we had a great time doing this.

Hagey: We were in real high school rooms. Everybody was reliving in real-time. It was very, very intense. But here were those moments where it was very, very, very joyous.

Aldarondo: The teenagers were a huge part of this, too. It was so fun to be with real teenagers observing their tics, their mannerisms. It was like anthropological or something: “Oh, this is how they do it in their habitat.” They’re like little mini dramas. And, you know, there was like two of our actors who ended up dating and going to prom together. And it was just very cute. I think it was also the intergenerational dynamics that made it really fun.

When you talk about movies as references, the scene where Joel’s girlfriend tells you that Joel (the object of your desire) wants to dance with you, so as to mock you, was so Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.

Aldarondo: I know. When I started the process, I was identifying these mortifying experiences and I was like, “Whoa, I have archetypal memories. I have a lunchroom memory, I have a dancing memory.” And that was very unexpected. It was coincidental. But that helped open up this whole thing of, “Did this actually happened the way I remember it, or is it because I watched Romy and Michelle one too many times?” We decided to embrace that question.

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