Detective Agencies, Film Noir and Society’s Relationship to the Elderly: Maite Alberdi on Her Doc, The Mole Agent
Responding to a help-wanted ad, 85-year-old Sergio Chamy agrees to infiltrate a Santiago nursing home as a “mole agent” to find out if a client’s mother is being abused. As a “spy” he uncovers a hidden world of frustration and loneliness.
Maite Alberdi’s documentary borrows from film noir before evolving into an unsettling look at the lives of the elderly. It was developed with the help of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Tribeca Film Institute. The Mole Agent screened at Sundance, and is available on demand starting September 1.
Filmmaker spoke with Alberdi from her office in Santiago.
Filmmaker: How did you start on this project?
Maite Alberdi: I wanted to make a documentary about private detectives. I’m a super fan of film noir and pulp fiction, and I realized that I never saw a documentary that centered around a detective agency. That was my starting point. I researched agencies, which is how I met Romulo, a retired police officer who had his own shop. He handled several “mole” cases. I 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 clients, interview them, take notes. Then I had cases where parents wanted to follow their children, or I followed couples. A lot of 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 paper to find and train a new mole.
Filmmaker: So in effect Romulo cast Sergio.
Alberdi: No, he wasn’t going to pick Sergio. I had to convince him. Romulo wanted someone else, someone I didn’t think was empathetic. The one Romulo liked was accompanied by his wife during the interview. And Romulo being super-machismo, I could say, “Maybe the wife will be there all the time. She could be a problem. That won’t happen with Sergio.”
Filmmaker: You were like a private eye yourself, investigating the investigators.
Alberdi: Exactly. I feel Sergio’s job is super-similar to my job as documentary filmmaker. Because when I’m shooting, I spend a lot of time, waiting, waiting, until I have the scene. Documentary filmmaking requires a lot of patience. Some days I never press “rec” because nothing interesting is happening. For Sergio it’s the same, he’s waiting, following people, waiting, waiting until he takes the pictures or until he gets the proof that he needs.
I’m always spying on people. They know I’m there, that’s the big difference. I observe people without participating.
Filmmaker: How did you persuade the nursing home to agree to filming?
Alberdi: We said that I want to make a film about old age. I had previously released a film in Chile about older people, so it wasn’t weird that I wanted to shoot there. We said we would shoot both the good things and the bad things that happen there. So if we see something bad, we will show it. They signed an agreement to that effect. Then we said, if someone new arrives we want to focus on their experiences. That they allowed too. We introduced ourselves to the staff, and we started to shoot inside the retirement home for three weeks before Sergio arrives. When he came, we acted as if we didn’t 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 her brothers and sisters that their mom wasn’t okay there. Of course I started to realize that the nursing home was a good place, and then I felt super-guilty about lying to them.
When we finished the film, they were the first people we showed it to. I said, “I lied to you, it was a film about a mole.” When they saw it, they loved it. They cried a lot. Now they are the best promoters of the film.
Filmmaker: One of the saddest aspects of The Mole Agent is that it shows how even with a good environment and a caring staff, the elderly have trouble dealing with isolation.
Alberdi: We always put the blame on the institution. Like with school, and my kids, it’s always the teacher’s fault. But I’m the one who’s not building a community there.
With retirement homes it’s the same. We put our old people there and forget them. We don’t work to make it a good place, a community. You can correct the problem by connecting them with families, integrating them into society. In Latin America it’s really common to isolate older people. It was the same with my previous film [The Grown-Ups, 2016], which was about people with Down Syndrome. Their parents put them in a special needs school, and fifty years later they’re still there.
Filmmaker: Your visual style is arresting. The Mole Agent settles into the rhythms of the elderly, and the imagery that reflects their feelings. Can you talk about collaborating with cinematographer Pablo Valdés?
Alberdi: I have been working with Pablo for 10 years, we’ve made, I think, five films together. Here I really wanted to make a film noir, I wanted to shoot angles like a fiction film. We had some style references, but we ended up using the same techniques we always use.
We spend a lot of time with people until they get used to the camera. I would try to figure out which ones didn’t, so we wouldn’t shoot them. The people in the home have a routine that doesn’t change very much. They have lunch at the same time, for example. It’s like my life, I don’t change that much, I know my routine. So if I know, I can predict how things are going to happen, and at what time and place.
We spend a lot of time planning the frame. And then it’s wait. For example, that’s why I don’t use a handheld camera. Because we can never wait that long holding a camera. I would love to make a film with a more mobile camera, but we can’t move.
Filmmaker: You said in an interview that reality is cyclical, and that you discover patterns within it.
Alberdi: I don’t make films about the past. I am shooting in the present in all of my films. When I’m shooting, I trust that if I wait, the things that I saw before will happen again. I don’t know when, but they are going to happen. So as I saw the other mole cases, in my mind I knew what kind of things Romulo was going to ask Sergio. So I knew what I am going to shoot.
I’m going to give you an example from the first film where I learned that. It’s called A Lifeguard (El salvavidas, 2011). The main character thinks that the best lifeguard is the one who never needs to go into the water — he prevents accidents from happening. But he works at the most dangerous beach in Chile, where every summer someone drowns. My concern was, okay, I have a film about the lifeguard. He has to face whether or not to go into the water. And I need that in my narrative. But how can I shoot that I’m shooting a second character, or I’m running around someplace else?
Okay, I have to study the behavior at this beach. I spent a summer trying to understand the routines there. I studied the marine statistics. I learned that all of the people drowned at the same place between five and six in the evening. I didn’t know which day it was going to happen, but I knew the time and the place. So we spent all the summer in the same place at the same time waiting. We were there when it happened, and we have it in the film.
Filmmaker: But you’re still selecting, choosing as you go along. There is a scene in The Mole Agent you couldn’t have predicted, when a frightened woman breaks down into tears in front of Sergio.
Alberdi: In some ways you can predict, because you learn the world there. There were 50 women in the home, and we choose six to follow because we knew something was going to happen to them. That woman, for example, she’s saying her son didn’t come to visit. That’s something she said to other people, something she said to me. So I knew when Sergio introduced himself, she would say something similar.
Filmmaker: That moment reaches a universal truth, the fear everyone faces about growing old. It stripped away the rest of the narrative framework for me.
Alberdi: I believe that documentary filmmaking is like being a sculptor. You have this big rock that is reality, and it is big, because that place has a lot of people. You have to chisel until a figure appears. The decision about what you are taking out is more important than what you are keeping.
Filmmaker: You had 300 hours of material. How difficult was the editing process?
Alberdi: We had a lot of versions. For example that scene you mentioned, at the time I shot it I was living with Sergio in the home. I was living the same feelings as he did. I had the same emotional commitments. And I have to deal in the editing with how to balance the original case, and my emotional experiences.
We shot the case, the client, all the details about her. In the beginning I thought I had to explain everything, and until the end what I was shooting, the narrative plot, was the case itself. In the editing room I found my heart was not in the case. Yeah, it was rational, it advanced the story. But my emotions were what was driving me forward. It was super-difficult to realize that, to say for example, “Okay, the client is not going to appear after all.”
It took me a year to remove the client and make the movie Sergio’s journey. Or, for example, the decision to put myself in a shot. That was an editing 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 that in the beginning to make it easier for you to enter into the story.
Filmmaker: What’s your next project?
Alberdi: We are very early in shooting about a young couple. The man is fifty years old, he has Alzheimer’s, and it’s a love story about how the couple deals with that. Covid has made it terrible for them, and for me too because I can no longer shoot them. But she’s started shooting, and has brought a new life to the project.
It’s frustrating for everybody, not just me. It’s difficult after working on this for so many years to try to adapt to new forms of exhibition. My mind needs to be more open.