By Christina Kiely
Oscar-Nominated Best Documentary The Mole Agent takes on the difficult subject of aging and caring for elderly parents in an unexpectedly magnificent film. It is so gorgeously shot and starts out like a charming, often funny, film noir that it holds on to you even through the painfully sad moments.
Director and Producer Maité Alberdi, Producer Marcela Santibañez, and Executive Producer Julie Goldman, joined me to talk about The Mole Agent in a special edition of NYWIFT Talks: NYWIFT Goes to the Oscars. We discussed the powerful impact it has made, and how they created a film both so visually stunning and rich with character that The New York Times review believed the film to be partly dramatized. It wasn’t.
Here are highlights from our conversation.
Christina Kiely: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination! I loved The Mole Agent for so many reasons, first because its style is so original – it starts with that Sam Spade 1940s era thing, you get so sucked in – it’s so funny at the beginning and then you’re weeping.
How did the film come about? Did you start by wanting to make a movie about seniors or did you hear about the private investigator first?
Maité Alberdi (Director and Producer): The original plan was to make a film noir. It was a general stylistic decision. I found that documentaries are always an isolated genre. We have drama, comedy, action, film noir… documentary. We can see that in all the awards categories. Directors of documentaries are never Best Directors. Editors are never nominated for Best Editing. The idea was to make a film noir. What is the classic figure of a film noir? The detective. So… what happens with a detective in reality?
In Chile a lot of ex-FBI have their own agencies. Romelo was the one that gave me access to his company. Then the big challenge was to film a mole agent without killing the mission of the detective. It took a long time until we had the case of the old age home. And then when Sergio arrived he completely changed the topic and the mood of the film. It became his journey and then it also was our journey as a crew because we were also living that experience. We started with connecting to Romelo and the agency but then became connected to the people inside the home.
I didn’t expect that to be your answer and it’s an interesting approach. Finding an ending is always the question with documentaries. How did you expect the story would end? Were you expecting one ending and got a different one?
Maité: I am always afraid of the beginning and the ending, but here I was not. I knew that the beginning was his (Sergio’s) training and the end was the day he had to go back to his home. We had all the parts of the narrative of the film noir, [combined] with the super classic hero journey, but our heart was not in that structure – it was all the spaces for feelings. The structure is there to create the feelings that are there.
So much hinged on him being this unbelievably compelling and profound person. When I think about what filmmakers and producers put into production – financially speaking or just in terms of time and the risk – did you know what you had in terms of this man being the remarkable character that he was when you were getting started?
Marcel Santibañez (Producer): This film was always quite risky and we were hoping that it worked, but there was always a chance that maybe it wouldn’t work. And of course once Sergio arrived we felt he would be a good character but we had no idea of the dimensions that he really had. And I think that once we were realizing his relationship with people and how this journey was really changing him I think we kind of started to relax a little bit. We could start to see the shape and thought okay this crazy idea it seems like it’s gonna work. But we couldn’t know what would happen.
Like someone proposing marriage to him.
Marcel: We knew someone would fall in love with him because he was so charming and there were 60 women and he was the only man that was like him. But we didn’t know she would propose.
Maité: And we didn’t know she was going to be so open…in that scene when she said “I want to get married” with him and that she was a virgin!
It’s so interesting now that you’re telling me that you started with this detective and spy and not with wanting to tell a story of seniors living in a senior home, because I thought perhaps that this was a way of telling something difficult and making it palatable to people. But you did the reverse. Did you realize you had something that could profoundly affect society?
Maité: Even if the starting point was other at the end, yeah. I think that the goal of this documentary and documentaries [in general] is to make change. I feel that it is super local film but at the end loneliness and abandonment – everybody can connect. The documentary filmmaker has to be flexible to move your point of view.
Julie Goldman (EP): Maite’s previous film… called Tea Time is also about elderly women in Chile and it’s an amazing film that was on POV. It was an entryway for her to be able to get into the nursing home before Sergio even came. It didn’t seem odd that somebody who made Tea Time would come to them. And the openness that she encountered was because of that – not saying what the real deal was but just saying “I want to make a film about this place warts and all, good or bad, we’re going to show it if you agree to it.” And because Maite has this sensitivity towards older folks and that comes across.
Have the people at the home seen the film?
Marcel: An hour before the premiere at Sundance we were really nervous because we had to tell them the truth. They didn’t even know the name of the film. I think it has been by far the screening that we really care about the most. They came and we told him Sergio was really a spy. But watch the film. Because when we told you in the beginning that we wanted to make a film about the nursing home that spirit is exactly the same. They were nervous but then the watched it and loved it.
Did you try to reach out to the daughter who had initiated the investigation?
Maité: That was more for Romelo and they resolved that family issue. But we have seen that a lot of people after seeing the film have been telling us they’ve been calling their grandparents and reconnecting. It’s been super touching.
Marcel: I realized while working on the film that I would go three days without calling my mother. This movie’s not going to change the world but it makes you remember. The film has made a small difference and that makes us proud.
You have a woman director, producer, and executive producer. Did this affect how the film went and the relationship you had with the subject in the film?
Marcel: Yeah! Our whole team is just women, well the DP and sound guys are men. But I think it makes a big difference. We care so much. It’s not just a job, it’s a life. We really connect emotionally. Julie has been a mentor to me and I feel that because we are women we connect on a deep level.
Maité: Yes! We are only three of us, three women in our office, and for us to get nominated for an Oscar is like another world. We feel like with the help of Julie we hacked the system in a way. This nomination was not predicted.
Julie: It was definitely not predicted! The film connected with people. While you can see it now on Hulu, it was a PBS film. We didn’t have a big spending ability. We had people that … they care. There’s a scrappiness. And also a really big deal that Chile picked it as their selection. It’s big deal and we’re so proud.
Thank you all so much and good luck with the Oscars!
Watch the full NYWIFT Talks conversation here:
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