Director Maite Alberdi: “My detective film is really an excuse to look at a subject we might never see”

The Chilean tells EL PAÍS what she learned about loneliness while in a senior home making ‘The Mole Agent,’ the only Latin American movie up for an Oscar this year

Chilean filmmaker Maite Laberdi.
Chilean filmmaker Maite Laberdi.Juan Naharro G./El agente topo (EFE)

The classified ad placed years ago in Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper was easy to miss: “Wanted: adult male aged 80-90 years old. Independent, in good health, discreet and adept with technology”. It was posted by a private detective looking to plant an elderly man in a retirement home to spy on the staff and check whether they were abusing a female resident living there. The lady’s daughter had her suspicions, and had hired the detective to assess them.

Sergio Chamy read the ad, saw that he fit the profile, and decided to respond. He was bored with life, and thought he didn’t have much to lose. Chamy would go on to become the “mole” in the Chilean documentary  The Mole Agent. Its director, Maite Alberdi, had planned to film an investigation into abuse, but the documentary turned into something totally different: a meditation on families abandoning their elderly loved ones and on the loneliness of old age. Alberdi spoke to EL PAÍS just before learning that her film was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category.

Question. How did you film such intimate moments in the retirement home? A woman makes a declaration of love to Sergio, and another lady in the early stages of Alzheimer’s bursts into tears in front of the cameras.

Answer. The filming process took about four months and we became part of the furniture. We were there all day with the cameras. We went in to film as a team before Sergio arrived. We interacted with him, but in the manner that you see on screen: we are following Sergio through this process, during which he strikes up these relationships. If we had not had him as a character, those bonds would probably not exist. What he does is the same thing we do with the camera.

There were days when we didn’t shoot anything and the camera was there, waiting. There were ladies there who are completely alone, sometimes all day long, but now the camera was there too. I felt that they began to build up a confidence that is evident in the scene you mention: someone with the confidence to cry in front of her friend, and cry in front of a camera, is very aware that we are there. But it’s not just the camera; we were a group that had welcomed her, and listened to her, and kept her company for months. [The documentary] started from a place of acceptance, and followed the spontaneous relationships that developed. It happened by waiting, with patience, and by taking the time.

Q. The documentary is very respectful of the people we see, but they didn’t know that you were also a mole like Sergio, and they trusted you to film with them. They will have seen a very different result from what they expected. Did that create a dilemma for you?

A. Of course there is a big ethical dilemma. They didn’t know the specific story of The Mole Agent. But the idea that we presented to them, I think, is the subject of the film. We told them that it was going to be a documentary about the elderly, and that we wanted to film the good and the bad, all day long. Of course, they didn’t know that I was filming a spy, and I feel that I went in without being transparent about the story. That was an ethical dilemma for me. But at the same time, when they saw the film, they felt that the film represented them. We showed what everyday life there was like.

You realize that the most important thing is the relationships made and the bond that is produced when older people are open to the experience

I began from a point of prejudice, thinking that something bad was happening [in the retirement home], because that’s what we were investigating. I think perhaps that unconsciously helped me to tell this lie. When I realized that this was a good place for the elderly, I had the dilemma of “I didn’t tell them this was a spy movie, and I wasn’t transparent about it, and I came here under a different pretext.” That receded when they saw the film and it fascinated them, and they felt represented, and they started promoting it.

Q. So you also thought it would be a documentary that would expose the mistreatment of the elderly?

A. Totally. I went in with my own prejudice, that this was an abusive situation. I was going to make a detective film where the case was very important, and the evidence, and the client. In reality you realize that the most important thing is the relationships made and the bond that is produced when older people are open to the experience. From there, by giving time for people’s identities to show through, I feel that what Sergio does in the film goes in another direction, and the investigation doesn’t matter so much.

My detective film is really an excuse to look at a subject that, without that excuse, we might never see. If we invite viewers to watch a documentary about how lonely old people feel, we are probably not going to see it. But here it’s the other way around. My “excuse,” the film that I wanted to make at the beginning, ends up hooking you in, and holding the viewer’s hand in order to confront issues that we don’t want to talk about, that we don’t want to look at. We don’t talk about how we would like to experience getting older. As children we talk a lot about how we want to grow up. As a young person we think about the adult we want to be. But we never get asked about the old person we want to be.

Q. It’s a topic that is now being discussed more since the recent demonstrations in Chile, and specifically pensions for the elderly. How does this retirement home fit in as a metaphor in the current context?

A. There are several things in the film that speak to the current political context. One is the poor pension system, and the fact that life expectancy has increased but not necessarily opportunities to stay within the fabric of society, or to maintain the will to live. The increase in life expectancy has not been associated with a new life, or a new stage in life. Old age is still linked to opportunities receding, and there has been a lot of discrimination against the elderly. In this new political context, where new opportunities and new horizons are opening to minorities – I would put the elderly in that category – this film shows an older group that wants to work, and wants to be active. The first sequence of the film shows that, and raises the question of how we want to grow old. It is a question about the future.

The pandemic forced them to self-isolate and officially close the doors. But that closure had already happened symbolically

We are thinking about a new constitution in Chile, and we are thinking about the country we want to have. Part of that future is a projection of how we want to grow individually and as a community. What Chile has done, in general, is that all people who are dependent for some reason, physical or mental, end up isolated. We have to break that isolation, and that is part of the discussion on the table today in the creation of the new constitution.

Q. What has happened in the retirement home during the pandemic?

A. Of course they suffered losses due to Covid, as the elderly were the most affected. But for me the strongest feeling I have is that there was already a pandemic in that place – the pandemic of loneliness. They were already socially isolated, and the doors of their home were metaphorically closed before lockdown. Many of them had no visitors; there is a character who had not had a visitor for two years. There were funerals that family members did not attend. Of course, the pandemic forced them to self-isolate and officially close the doors. But that closure had already happened symbolically.

The character of Marta, who is at the fence saying “I want to get out and I want to live in another moment,” even if she has dementia, she is representing all of them. The previous lockdown stays with her. The pandemic made those of us on the outside more aware, and we started asking: “How long has it been since I’ve seen my dad or my grandfather or my grandmother?”. People started calling them. But this awareness was not for those who were there [in the retirement home], who were already alone and isolated.

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