Maite Alberdi’s “The Mole Agent” has a Hollywood spy premise, but more humanity than any James Bond movie. The documentary follows Sergio, an 83-year-old man hired by a private detective to infiltrate a retirement house with the objective of investigating allegations of mistreatment. The astonishing end result is a humorous, charming and highly empathic examination of how society treats its elder population that has garnered all sorts of praise for Alberdi, as well as slots on the Oscar shortlist for both the Best Documentary and Best International Feature categories.
Getting the film made was quite the feat. After years of research, Alberdi met Rómulo, a former police investigator turned private detective who allowed her to enter his world. When the nursing home case started, Sergio wasn’t even on the cards. Rómulo had his own private spy who was going to do the job, but as fate would have it, he broke his hip and Rómulo was forced to search for a replacement.
“When he put the ad on the newspaper, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I was astonished because I thought nobody was going to be interested,” said Alberdi during the interview. In the film we see half a dozen interviewees, but in reality, nearly 50 interested elderly men answered the call. “This speaks to how bad the pensions system is in Chile and lets you see that a group of elderly people are active and want to be part of society. We can’t just say that everybody is alone and abandoned, because there are many that want to work and be active.”
After the selection of Sergio for the job, things weren’t so easy for Maite Alberdi and her team. Days after arriving at the nursing home, Sergio wanted to leave: He was afraid of being abandoned there.
“We couldn’t do much. We couldn’t intervene. Rómulo and his children had to talk to him,” she said. “Finally, his children convinced him. His son told him: ‘You will not become someone else there, we are not going to abandon you; you are there for work.’ He motivated and assured him they would visit.”
The difficulties didn’t stop there. For months, Alberdi had to shoot the documentary without drawing too much attention on Sergio. She had to protect his spy status.
“First, we asked for permission to film inside the nursing home. We said that we wanted to shoot a documentary about the elderly people. Of course, we didn’t detail the detective story we were following, but we did say we wanted to portray how people living there felt. They gave us authorization to film everyone,” she said.
After filming his training, Sergio was instructed to act as if he didn’t know who Maite was. And to further cover their tracks, Alberdi and her team started filming inside the home three weeks before Sergio arrived. “When he entered the home, everyone else was already accustomed to us filming there,” she recalled.
“The Mole Agent” was shot under stressful circumstances, because Sergio could be discovered at any moment. Every day was a challenge. Alberdi knew that the film could come apart at any point during the process.
“That was the most complicated thing,” said Alberdi. “Until this very day, the producers say that the risk of it all gave her a stomach ache. Sergio did all those things you see in the film: He was talking over the loudspeaker, asking the nurses to give the target its medication. We were always thinking that he was going to be discovered. Then, he had a row with Rómulo and we thought Rómulo was going to kick him out of the project. Everything was like that, we didn’t know how it would all turn out. It was a very risky film. We only had certainty that we would finish it until the very end.”
After everything was said and done, Alberdi had to reveal the truth and the film to the owners of the nursing home. Luckily, they loved it.
“They couldn’t believe Sergio was a detective. I don’t know how they didn’t suspect, I really don’t know, ” she said. “They loved it, they feel as if the film represents them very well. And that was important to me: to know what they were comfortable with and supported it.”
What was Alberdi’s biggest surprise of making “The Mole Agent”? Realizing that old people are open to new experiences.
“Sergio was the greatest of gifts. He’s a person always eager to listen to others, eager to meet new people, open to living someplace else. Sometimes you think that elderly people live monotonously and are undisposed to live new experiences, so it caught my attention to see all this stuff,” reflected Alberdi. “Seeing Berta willing to fall in love and get married despite being 85 years old, seeing all these people looking for a job opportunity and going to job interviews, seeing Sergio making new friends, daring to go to a new place. I have worked a lot with the elderly, but this made me change my perceptions.”
Throughout her career, Alberdi has talked about disability, discrimination and old age. Her approach is always humane because she is trying to “understand the world and society through individual experience.”
“I believe that it is the experiences what mobilizes us. Yesterday on Twitter, I was very moved by a story of an anonymous person who sent flowers to all the ladies of the nursing home that appears in the film so that they would not feel so alone,” she said. “I don’t know if the world is going to change, but that gesture is enough for me. This was not someone who not only called their mom or dad, but cared about them. I can give you data about how the highest suicidal rates in Chile are for people between 80 and 90 years old, but actually seeing the experience of loneliness is what moves you to take action. The goal of my films is to understand the world and where we stand socially.”
The word “social” has taken a very important meaning in Chile. After many social movements and street protests, the country recently voted to overturn the Pinochet-era constitution. The new one will be drafted by a new body elected by the people.These changes will surely be reflected on Chilean cinema.
“People are watching more Chilean cinema because we are trying to understand where we are standing and understand where we are going”, she explained. “All the themes discussed for the new constitution were already being portrayed by Chilean cinema. Audiences have increased. People are more committed to these themes because we want to visualize the Chile we want to build.”
Of course, documentaries will be an essential part of this process. However, Maite Alberdi doesn’t think that this type of filmmaking is getting the respect it deserves in the industry as a whole. “The Mole Agent” is one of only three films to ever be shortlisted in the Best International Feature category of the Oscars. Unfortunately, documentaries are absent as frontrunners to get a nomination in all other categories which, especially in such a rich year, is outrageous.
“Documentary still does not have the importance it deserves. Deep down I am very grateful that the industry has started to understand that the documentary is a film and not a separate genre, but there’s a long way to go,” said Alberdi on the issue. “For example: To me, it’s unbelievable that there are no documentaries being recognized in Best Editing. I feel that the job of a documentary editor is as important as that of a screenwriter, or even more.”
“The Mole Agent” editor Carolina Syraquian worked with over 300 hours of material. Yet, her work will hardly be recognized at the “big” awards shows. The same goes for other outstanding documentaries such as “Collective” and “Time,” which would deserve recognition in the editing departement, but are not even in the conversation. Maite Alberdi is hopeful for the future though:
“Things are changing and audiences are watching more documentaries without associating them to just reporting, which was customary years ago,” she explained. “It all has changed thanks to new platforms and directors defending their style. We also, at least in Chile, live in a moment in which we are trying to figure out our social and political context, and documentaries are a big help in achieving that. We are in a moment of research, of social understanding, and documentaries are always an invitation to do just that.”
The Oscar nominations will be announced on March 15, and “The Mole Agent” could become the second film in history (after last year’s “Honeyland”) to score both Best Documentary and Best International Feature nods. It would be the first Latin American film to achieve it.
“The Mole Agent” is currently streaming on Hulu in the United States and on Netflix in many Latin American countries. Make sure to follow The Mole Agent on Twitter (@moleagentfilm) for updates. And follow us on Twitter (@shuffleonline) for more film coverage.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”