Maite Alberdi: ‘Viewers have less tolerance for pain in documentaries than in fiction’

The Chilean director of Oscar-nominated ‘La Memoria Infinita’ talks about her creative process and how her characters’ pain becomes her own.

Maite Alberdi
Maite Alberdi in New York.Paola Chapdelaine
Antonia Laborde

Making La Memoria Infinita (The Eternal Memory), which recently won Best Ibero-American Film at the Goya Awards, took four and a half years. During the first three, Maite Alberdi did not knock on any doors. She doesn’t like to sell something without being sure that it will deliver what was promised. And to find out, she has no choice but to pick up her camera and wait for hours on end until what she is looking for happens.

It is her particular sense of smell and touch that make those moments finally happen. And she gets excited. “At first it is always at financial risk, and it often comes at creative risk,” she says in a video call from a hotel in New York. She is in the middle of the Oscars campaign, where the film about love and Alzheimer’s is hoping to win the award for Best Documentary.

While Alberdi was recording the love story between actress Paulina Urrutia and journalist Augusto Góngora, the protagonists of The Eternal Memory, she was working on El Agente Topo (The Mole Agent). The profound portrait of loneliness in a nursing home has also been critically acclaimed and was nominated for the film industry’s top awards. While shooting the documentaries Alberdi is patient and calm, but the Chilean filmmaker does not stop. In a window in her schedule that she had in 2023, she shot her first fiction feature film, a Netflix original movie that she cannot talk about yet.

Question. Your work addresses drama through the prism of humor and affection. Are you looking to give the audience a break?

Answer. It’s a decision I make when I choose the people I’m going to film. If they don’t make me laugh or have a certain lightness, I can’t film them. If something is absolutely terrible, completely tragic, with no nuances, I’m not going to get into it. I think that the viewer has less tolerance for pain in documentaries than in fiction, because they are real. Life is terrible enough without sitting down to watch a documentary where there is no light relief. What’s more, there is lightness in life. Since I try to look at it that way, I choose places and people who, in the midst of a possible drama, make me laugh or who are having a good time in everyday life. It is about tragedies being contexts and not the way to deal with that reality. That’s what hooks me because I have to be able to sleep at night. It’s like pain in the right measure.

Q. They are also universal themes. You don’t have to be Chilean or know the characters to sympathize. How much does that weigh on your projects?

A. I work for the world, not for a country or an idiosyncrasy. More than the theme, what the characters create must be universal. It must be something that allows you to really connect with the person in front of you and whose themes can be discussed everywhere. It mainly has to do with the level of connection it creates in me and that I see can impact others. I am the first parameter when saying ‘ok, I want to be with this person, they spark interest, enthusiasm, they connect with me emotionally’ and understanding that my radar [for finding a connection with the protagonists] is also going to work for the public.

Q. You have spent years working with the characters. How much of a link is there between that and your relationships with those people?

A. I live with the people I film for many years. So they are characters from the movies, but for me they are personal relationships that I have in my life and that I build. What happens to them happens to me. What they feel, I feel, and their losses are my losses. In the end they become my life experiences. I experience it like this because it is a lot of shared time. They are my pain and my pleasure too.

Q. When you won the Goya you said that The Eternal Memory had taught you other forms of mourning. What were they?

A. It is a great loss, but I am left with the feeling of a celebration of good life and good love. It was the same feeling I had at Augusto [Góngora]’s funeral. It was a nostalgic sadness, but without the feeling of tragedy, which is how people usually approach death. I think I have seen Paulina like this too, sharing the pain, the mourning, talking about it. It is very raw, but in a positive way. Difficulties are talked about and not hidden, the same as she did with Alzheimer’s.

Q. It has been a year of recognition. Is the moment, the subject of the documentary, a reward for the many years of effort?

A. I think it’s a bit of both. There is no one film without the other. Awards like the DOC NYC [documentary festival] and Sundance, which are for the film, also come from the visibility that the previous films have had. I attribute the success of Memory... to the fact that it has a very exceptional emotion. Beyond the issue of Alzheimer’s, which I don’t think is the issue. I feel that it is what happens to people watching the film in every country. It is the same level of intensity, and that does not always happen.

Q. The Mole Agent also made it to the Oscars, but it was a virtual campaign due to the pandemic. Now you have been promoting The Eternal Memory for 13 months. How does this difference affect the result?

A. I’d prefer the pandemic campaign 1,000 times over for my quality of life. It also seemed to me to be a more democratic campaign for films, one in which it was not necessary to spend all the budgets that distributors make available. We arrived with The Mole Agent because all the films were in the same position, and there were no events to organize. It was an independent film in distribution, not like The Eternal Memory. In this context I don’t know if we would have achieved it. A campaign year is very long, but Sundance [where the documentary premiered in January 2023] is the best festival to enter in the United States. You just don’t know what’s going to happen, if the press is going to pick you up, or if you are going to sell it. It’s a gamble, but everything worked out here: we won [the jury prize]. They bought it, and the press was incredible. The number of countries where it was released and the impact it had is quite impressive.

Q. How has your experience been with the Hollywood industry?

A. Awards campaigns are very exhausting for a director. I have experienced it as an opportunity to promote my cinema. I have tried to accept it that way and I’m grateful to have a space. It is an opportunity that I don’t know if it will happen again. It was a one-off: having a distributor willing to invest in a Chilean director and in a Chilean film in the United States and in the world. It doesn’t always happen. I appreciate the gift, but that’s it. We already did everything, and we are here. It seemed impossible: 167 films, most of them American and we did it. I’m just going to celebrate and go there with no expectations.

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