What makes the documentary film so powerful is the fact that it shines a spotlight on segments of society and events in history that often go overlooked. It can give voice to the voiceless and the unheard. It can be a force for change. It can inspire us, make us laugh or cry, educate and entertain — sometimes it can even do all of those things at once. Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s most recent documentary, The Mole Agent, will give you all the feels while being thoroughly delightful to watch. No wonder it garnered a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, making history as the first female, Chilean director nominated for an Academy Award and the first Chilean film to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature).
Alberdi’s work delves into the lives of those on the fringes of society or those communities neglected in cinema and today’s culture, from those with developmental disabilities to the elderly, giving voice to those often misunderstood or seldom heard.
LV Taylor/We Live Entertainment: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. The Mole Agent follows an octogenarian Sergio, who is sent to spy on an alleged case of elder abuse at a nursing home. How did you come across this story, and whose idea was it to have this spy film/noir kind of feel to it?
Maite Alberdi: Thank you so much. I came to the story because I wanted to make a private detective documentary. Most think that documentaries are not a genre that this style can reach — detective/spy films are usually the territory of fiction. I started with a stylish intention, saying I want to make a film noir about the private detective because that’s always been the territory of fiction films. How can you take the stylish conventions of fiction and mix them with the reality, trying to understand documentaries as films?
I started to research the figures of the private detective in Chile. I researched all the private detective agencies until I met Romulo [Aitken, the private detective in the film]. He was the only one that allowed me to work with him for a while to research his company, and to see different cases. It was in seeing these cases I came across the retirement home case. I realized that in this case I can speak about other things, not only the private detective.
The starting point changed with the topic, but I think what really changed the film was the figure of Sergio [the octagenarian who goes undercover in the retirement home]. I was not expecting to have him as a character because I was thinking that I was just going to work with an ex-police officer. But then Sergio arrives at this interview because our ex-police office that was our original mole broke his hip. When Sergio arrived, he really made me look at other things. Here was a man that’s 85 years old and so open to experience and get to know new people. He was hoping to research in another way that would look deeply to that people. That invited us to look deeply at the situation with new eyes.
LV: How are you able to deliver something that was so intimate and empathetic, without exploiting and intruding into the world of the nursing home and those individuals’ lives?
MA: With time and patience. We shot this film inside the retirement home for like three months. We’d be there all day looking at all the characters. I entered with Sergio for three months, but I entered before that with the camera for a couple of weeks so people could get used to the camera. We tried to understand how they live, how they feel, how they work, how they move and how they feel comfortable with the camera, and what stories they wanted to share — not only what I was looking for. I was looking to see the conditions, but they didn’t want to speak about the conditions of the place, they wanted to speak about their feelings. We tried to move openly to understand what was really happening there. The things that were really happening were not about the place, but about themselves. So I think that time is what gave us that kind of connection.
LV: When you were filming, did you think that it would connect with people the way that it has and what were your initial hopes that people would take away from this film?
MA: No, I think that it was changing. In the beginning, I thought it was a super risky film. I wanted to finish and to see if it’s possible to show the private detective. I thought, he’s going to be discovered, he’s the worst spy in the world. I didn’t feel the impact during the shooting, I was only trying to have the material to make a film. But at the same time, I was living intense emotions when I was shooting. I started to realize that there was something happening there that was really important and really universal. I connected myself with that. The scenes where the audience cry seeing the film are scenes where I cried while shooting. I started living my idea of the narrative film noir thriller, then I started to feel with them. I don’t know if I understood the impact, but I understand which feelings that character provokes because they provoke it in me, to the point that they moved me to change my story.
LV: I read that you shot over 300 hours of footage. What was that editing process like?
MA: It was really long. Tt took us a year, it was mostly having to find the equilibrium. In the beginning, the client was super important for me because I know the case, the clues, and everything that’s happening with the detective. The editing process showed that that wasn’t the heart of the story. We now understood that was only a good excuse to enter into that topic. It’s hard to say how people felt about being alone and abandoned, but if I had just started with that, nobody’s going to see the film. But, if I say, okay, this is the story of a mole that has never worked on a spy. I discovered that my original idea was just an excuse to get to know the other things.
So the editing process was just me constructing my own process that I lived researching and the shooting of the film and leaving my previous idea, and just trying to understand which was the correct balance. How do I deal with the black and white that I saw every day? People that were enjoying being there but at the same time were super sad. So how do I construct that and not take a stereotypical approach to old age and those feelings of loneliness?
LV: In your work, you focus on telling stories of communities or groups of people that are often ignored, or not really shown on the screen like that. What draws you to tell these stories in particular?
MA: Yeah, I think that for me, cinema has a social commitment. The politics and statistics are something that I read about in all the newspapers. I see numbers and I see statements, but I never see the experiences. I feel that in my society — Latin American society — there are so many groups that are completely isolated because of different reasons. They depend upon others. I can read that and I can understand it theoretically, but I will never be moved by that theory if I do not know the experience. So if people are not familiar with this group in their day-to-day, they will never understand that number because they’ve never lived the experience.
For example, I read that the highest rate of suicide in Chile was from people between 80 and 90 years old because they feel alone. That was very surprising for me because I thought that young people committed suicide more than older people. I never thought that it was because of the loneliness, but after I shot this film, I understood that number. I understood how they are feeling. You can change reality with small gestures, like knowing that experience or knowing that world. That’s my challenge as a documentary filmmaker, to observe the worlds and to invite the viewer to understand them.
LV: You made history with The Mole Agent. This is only the second time in Chile’s history that a film by a woman has even been submitted into the Oscar race. You were initially shortlisted for two separate categories. Do you think that Chile’s presence on the world stage, in terms of films and documentaries is growing? And how did you personally feel about making history?
MA: I think that I was raised in a country of documentary filmmakers. I admire a lot of Chilean documentary filmmakers. That was super important for me because seeing my industry in Chile, I was convinced that there are different styles, there are different voices, and there is not only one way to make documentaries. I think that where I am now is because of my background as a documentary filmmaker in Chile with all these documentary filmmakers that I admired here. I am the visible one now, but it’s a road that we construct altogether. It’s super difficult for a woman Chilean filmmaker to dream that this kind of stuff is really going to make an impact. Everybody told us this kind of style will never get the industry behind it, or these kinds of topics are not the kind of topics that the industry takes because they have to be bigger.
I’m super honored because this is a bigger topic. It’s bigger because it affects everybody. Which ones are the biggest topics? The ones that the media tells us are bigger topics worth paying attention to? No, we have to discuss the issues that affect everybody. Everybody has something to do about that. We always say, “please call your parents, call your grandparents.” We have seen how people calling is that small-big gesture that goes a long way.
At the same time, it has been super touching to see so many women documentary filmmakers say, “you’re representing all of us.” I feel that mission in this moment — it’s not just me. If I can arrive to that place, another one can arrive too. Others can dream of that now because they’ve seen it happen. I had the same dream because I saw The Edge of Democracy doing that, because I saw Honeyland get two nominations last year it was like, “Okay, observational documentary can do that,” so I can dream with that. You cannot say that I can’t because the ones before me showed me that it can be done, so I really hope that I’ve shown other documentary filmmakers that they can too.
The percentage of women directing films has not really increased. A high percentage of the population of the people of the world is not represented in the cinema because our voices are not there. We need more voices. I really hope that with this, more women filmmakers are going to be brave and have more opportunities in the industry, I think that it’s very important.