The mole agent
Sergio Chamy, 85, replied to an advertisement for help, and agreed to infiltrate a nursing home in Santiago as a "mole agent" to find out if a customer's mother was being molested. As a "spy" he discovers a hidden world of frustration and loneliness.
Maite Alberdi's documentary borrows from film noir before evolving into a disturbing look at older people's lives. It was developed with the help of the Sundance Institute and Tribeca Film Institute documentary programs. The Mole Agent was screened at Sundance and will be available on request from September 1st.
The filmmaker spoke to Alberdi from her office in Santiago.
Filmmaker: How did you get into this project?
Maite Alberdi: I wanted to make a documentary about private detectives. I'm a big fan of film noir and pulp fiction and I realized that I'd never seen a documentary that was about a detective agency. That was my starting point. I did my research at agencies and that was how I met Romulo, a retired police officer who had his own business. He handled several "mole" cases. I've worked with him a couple of times and one of the cases involved the retirement home. I realized I wanted to shoot there.
Filmmaker: What did you do for Romulo?
Alberdi: I followed people. I would meet with customers, interview them, take notes. Then I had cases where parents wanted to follow their children or I followed couples. Many things.
Romulo usually worked with the same mole, but he broke his hip and had to be replaced when we were ready to start shooting. Romulo put an ad in the newspaper to find and train a new mole.
Filmmaker: So Romulo actually cast Sergio.
Alberdi: No, he didn't want to choose Sergio. I had to convince him. Romulo wanted someone else, someone I didn't think was empathic. The one Romulo liked was accompanied by his wife during the interview. And since Romulo is super machismo, I could say, “Maybe the woman is there all the time. You could be a problem. That won't happen with Sergio. "
Filmmaker: You were like a private detective yourself and investigated the investigators.
Alberdi: Exactly. I think Sergio's job is very similar to my documentary filmmaking job. Because when I'm taking pictures, I spend a lot of time waiting to get the scene. Documentary film requires a lot of patience. Some days I never press "rec" because nothing interesting happens. It's the same for Sergio, he waits, follows people, waits, waits until he takes the pictures or until he gets the evidence he needs.
I always spy on people. You know I'm there, that's the big difference. I watch people without participation.
Filmmaker: How did you convince the nursing home to agree to filming?
Alberdi: We said that I would like to make a film about age. I had previously released a film about the elderly in Chile, so it wasn't strange that I wanted to shoot there. We said we would shoot both the good and bad things that happen there. So if we see something bad, we will show it. You have signed a corresponding agreement. Then we said when someone new arrives we want to focus on their experience. They allowed that too. We introduced ourselves to the staff and started shooting at the retirement home for three weeks before Sergio arrived. When he came we pretended not to know each other.
There was a real client, a real case that Sergio was working on. It was a family problem, someone wanted to prove to their brothers and sisters that their mother was wrong there. Of course, I realized that the nursing home was a good place, and then I felt very guilty for lying to her.
When we finished the film, they were the first ones we showed it to. I said, "I lied to you, it was a movie about a mole." When they saw it, they loved it. They cried a lot. Now they are the movie's best promoters.
Filmmaker: One of the saddest things about The Mole Agent is that it shows that despite having a good environment and caring staff, older people have trouble dealing with isolation.
Alberdi: We always blame the institution. As in school and with my kids, it's always the teacher's fault. But I'm the one who doesn't build a community there.
It's the same with retirement homes. We put our old people there and forget about them. We're not working to make it a good place, a community. You can fix the problem by connecting them with families and integrating them into society. It is really common in Latin America to isolate the elderly. It was the same with my previous film (The Grown-Ups, 2016), which was about people with Down syndrome. Her parents sent her to a special school and fifty years later they are still there.
Filmmaker: Your visual style is impressive. The mole agent engages in the rhythms of older people and the images that reflect their feelings. Can you talk about working with cinematographer Pablo Valdés?
Alberdi: I've been working with Pablo for 10 years. I think we did five films together. I really wanted to do a film noir here, I wanted to make Winkel like a feature film. We had some style references but we ended up using the same techniques that we always use.
We spend a lot of time with people until they get used to the camera. I would try to find out which ones wouldn't, so we wouldn't shoot them. The people in the apartment have a routine that doesn't change much. For example, you have lunch at the same time. It's like in my life, I don't change so much, I know my routine. Knowing it, I can predict how things will happen and at what time and place.
We spend a lot of time planning the framework. And then it waits. That's why I don't use a handheld camera, for example. Because we can never wait that long with a camera. I would like to make a film with a more mobile camera, but we cannot move.
Filmmaker: You said in an interview that reality is cyclical and that you discover patterns in it.
Alberdi: I don't make films about the past. I shoot in the present in all of my films. When I take photos, I trust that the things I saw before will happen again if I wait. I don't know when, but they will happen. When I saw the other mole cases, I knew what Romulo Sergio was going to ask. So I knew what to shoot.
I'll give you an example from the first movie where I learned that. It's called A lifeguard (El salvavidas, 2011). The main character believes that the best lifeguard is the one who never has to go into the water – he prevents accidents. But he works on the most dangerous beach in Chile, where someone drowns every summer. My concern was, okay, I made a film about the lifeguard. He has to ask himself whether he should go into the water or not. And that's what I need in my story. But how can I shoot that I'm photographing a second character or walking around somewhere else?
Okay, I need to study behavior on this beach. I spent a summer trying to understand the routines there. I studied marine statistics. I learned that everyone drowned in the same place between five and six in the evening. I didn't know what day it would happen, but I knew the time and the place. So we waited in the same place at the same time all summer. We were there when it happened and we have it in the movie.
Filmmaker: But you still choose and choose as you go. There's one scene in The Mole Agent that you couldn't have predicted when a scared woman bursts into tears in front of Sergio.
Alberdi: In a way, you can predict because that's where you learn the world. There were 50 women at home and we picked six because we knew something was going to happen to them. For example, this woman says her son did not come to visit. She told other people that, she told me that. So I knew that when Sergio introduced herself she would say something similar.
Filmmaker: That moment reaches a universal truth, the fear everyone has of getting older. It took the rest of the narrative framework away from me.
Alberdi: I think documentaries are like a sculptor. You have this big stone that is reality and it's big because this place has a lot of people. You have to chisel until a figure appears. Deciding what to take out is more important than what to keep.
Filmmaker: You had 300 hours of footage. How difficult was the editing process?
Alberdi: We had many versions. For example that scene that you mentioned when I was filming it, I was living at home with Sergio. I lived the same feelings as him. I had the same emotional obligations. And while working on it, I have to deal with how I can reconcile the original case and my emotional experiences.
We shot the case, the client, all the details about her. At first I thought I had to explain everything, and until the end what I was filming was the narrative itself. In the editing room, I found that my heart wasn't in it. Yes, it was rational, it moved the story forward. But my feelings drove me on. It was very difficult to see, for example, "Okay, the customer won't show up."
It took me a year to remove the client and make the journey of the film Sergio. Or, for example, the decision to put myself in an opportunity. That was a processing decision. We edited in the Netherlands and showed it to a lot of Dutch people who kept asking: "Is this really a documentary?" I didn't want people to get lost. I preferred to put this at the beginning to get you started with the story.
Filmmaker: What's your next project?
Alberdi: We shoot a young couple very early. The man is fifty years old, he has Alzheimer's and it's a love story about how the couple deal with it. Covid made it terrible for her and for me too because I can't shoot her anymore. But she started shooting and breathed new life into the project.
It's frustrating for everyone, not just me. After so many years it is difficult to adapt to new forms of exhibition. My mind needs to be more open.