The critically acclaimed The Mole Agent (El Agente Topo), from Chilean director Maite Alberdi is among those nominated for an Oscar in this year’s best documentary category.
The film set out to uncover abuses in an assisted living facility, but in the end it exposed fears, desperation, loneliness and abandonment issues of the elderly, forgotten by their own families.
I spoke with Alberti, thrilled her film was nominated, about her journey in making the film.
How did you react when you heard your film got a nomination?
I could not believe it. El Agente Topo is a good, Chilean film, the only independent Latin American film at the Oscars that doesn’t have a studio behind it, with a team of women and a universal story.
How did this project come about?
This project started from an interest in making a film about investigating private detectives. I wanted to know why people hired detectives. That’s how I met Rómulo [Aitken]. He was investigating wether there was abuse in assisted facilities and that piqued my curiosity.
In Chile, the highest suicide rates are among people between 80 and 90 years old because they feel lonely. Where did that loneliness stem from? For me that was an invitation to understand those numbers, which I found surprising. I would have thought that the highest suicide rates were in young people. But after making this movie, I understand it. I feel like documentaries allow you to understand social issues.
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How long did it take you to complete the project?
It took me five years – from researching, filming, and editing. We finished it before the pandemic, but it’s very relevant. It’s amazing, because the movie is actually about the confinement and isolation of older people. I think that if I had filmed it last year, I would have made the exact same movie. Because my protagonists were already isolated and abandoned before the pandemic. The doors of the nursing home were already closed. They were already in a symbolic social confinement, without social interaction outside the home.
I always talk about the pandemic of loneliness. It shows us how there has been an ongoing social problem and the pandemic made it visible to everyone…. How long has it been since we visited a parent or grandparent? It shows the need to reconnect and rethink the social role of nursing homes.
How did you pick Sergio Chamy to be the spy?
We chose Sergio to be the spy, because in the job interview he is the only man who talks about his feelings. He says he was recently widowed, that he is from a generation in Latin America in which men were raised saying they should not cry or talk about their feelings. Even though many of the people who came in were very active seniors who wanted to work and were all lovely, he stood out. His openness led him to constantly talk about his feelings with the women he meets, which allows them to talk to him. He is able to generate a bond, because he is also willing to open his heart and express what happens to him.
At times it seems like instead of being a spy, doesn’t it seem like he became an emotional therapist for the other elders?
Yes, totally. Sergio is a therapist and I think the others are too. They are mutual therapists. Sergio is the therapist king of the nursing home… He is constantly changing roles. He is the detective, but he is also the father of his daughter, he is also a friend, he is a caregiver. He is a person that we see moving in and out of those roles, but always from a point of tenderness and willingness to connect.
What do you want the audience to take away from your film?
I believe that a documentary can generate social change. In this case, the film has brought the issue of old age and nursing homes to the fore. I want us to ask ourselves how we want to age. I want us to establish social connections between nursing homes and communities. And above all, I want people to do something very simple after they watch the film: call their mother, their father, their grandparents and reconnect. When we premiered the film, we said, it’s never too late to call, it’s never too late to go visit them. And I think that’s the main message from The Mole Agent.
Are you coming to Los Angeles for the Oscars?
I’m going with Sergio. He’s my date for the Oscars ceremony. He told me it would be the last great adventure of his life, and the first time he would get on a plane. So… it’s never too late for anything.