Detective Agencies, Film Noir and Society’s Relationship to the Elderly: Maite Alberdi on Her Doc, The Mole Agent | Filmmaker Magazine

ChileThe 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.

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Christopher Nolan’s new film ‘Tenet’: release date, plot details, cast and everything we know so far

person

Christopher Nolan had described Tenet, the follow-up to his 2017 war epic Dunkirk, as an “event film” – which seems to be a fitting description for every one of his mind-bending sci-fi thrillers to date.

From Interstellar and Inception to the Dark Knight trilogy, bigger is always better and Nolan rarely fails to deliver unparalleled thrills. But he’s a cryptic filmmaker, keeping as many details as possible under wraps until the very last moment.

Ahead of the upcoming release, we’ve gathered all released information about what’s set to be the most gripping release of the summer.

Tenet release date: when is the film in cinemas?

Tenet will premiere in cinemas in over 70 countries across the world on August 26 after being pushed back multiple times from its initial release date of 17 July, due to the ongoing crisis.

A limited US release will then follow on September 2, expanding into more cinemas across the States as they reopen after the pandemic.

The film will reportedly be debuting in IMAX format. The prologue started playing ahead of selected The Rise of Skywalker screenings in December 2019.

This year’s biggest films were shot with #IMAX cameras. Which ones are you most excited to experience in IMAX theatres? pic.twitter.com/viLifgt5RP

— IMAX (@IMAX) February 5, 2020

The film has also been confirmed to be rated 12A in the UK by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). It was originally advised to be a 15, but the rating was lowered after “making small changes to one scene to remove shots of a man kicking a woman”.

Tenet trailer: is there a trailer yet?

There is! The second trailer for Nolan’s latest has arrived after premiering on Fortnite, and it confirms that we’re in for one hell of a trip.

Although remaining relatively vague, it confirms that John David Washington is a secret agent tasked with stopping World War Three. Still, it looks set to be Nolan’s most mysterious project since Inception – packed with twists and turns.

Check out the new trailer below.

It follows the first trailer which was released online in December 2019, after playing exclusively in cinemas ahead of Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw.

Tenet cast: who is in it?

Nolan reunites with a couple of longtime collaborators on Tenet, including Michael Caine (The Dark Knight) and Kenneth Branagh (Dunkirk).

Tenet
Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet. Credit: Warner Bros.

But it’s also a showcase of new faces for the director – John David Washington () leads the film, and is joined by Robert Pattinson (styled with Nolan’s very own signature haircut), Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Debicki, Clémence Poesy, Himesh Patel (Yesterday), and Dimple Kapadia.

Tenet plot: what is the new film about?

As ever, specifics are being withheld – but the film follows a secret agent (Washington’s character, still unnamed) tasked with preventing World War III. The extra twist, making it recognisably Nolan, is that it focuses on something called “time inversion”.

An official synopsis confirms: “John David Washington is the new protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s original sci-fi action spectacle Tenet. Armed with only one word – Tenet – and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time. Not time travel. Inversion.”

Christopher Nolan Tenet John David Washington
John David Washington in ‘Tenet’. Credit: Warner Bros

A clue to the central narrative of the film may lie in history. The Sator Square (or Rotas Square) is a word square containing a five-word Latin palindrome. It contains five words (the central word being “Tenet”) made up of 25 letters and reads exactly the same forwards as it does backwards. It can be found across Europe, and has been located on different buildings, walls and urban dwellings as early as 79AD. The most famous version is in Oppede, France. One likely translation of the Square is “The farmer Arepo has [as] works wheels [a plough]”.

Sator Square
The Sator Square at Oppède, France. Credit Getty

No, you’re right, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But the symmetrical nature of the square could hint at the time-travel structure of Nolan’s new movie. Could, perhaps, the film revolve around a single point in time, or even feature a narrative that repeats itself backwards in the second half of the story?

Washington teased new plot details in an interview with Total Film. “It’s obviously genre-bending,” the actor said. “It’s its own genre: it’s the Nolan genre.”

Pattinson added, “There’s a point where you’re like, it’s kind of cool, and it becomes so insane that it’s almost frightening.

“I sound like such a moron talking about this stuff. Because on top of the, uh – how would I even say this? Quite advanced theoretical physics; I think I’m allowed to say that – it’s just got a billion different ways to read it.”

He adds: “It’s so complicated; if it wasn’t Chris Nolan doing it, you’d be like, ‘This is an impossible movie.’”

, Washington revealed that Tenet and Inception are “related” in some way, confirming long-held rumours that the films are connected.

One thing’s for certain though, even if the plot remains somewhat under wraps – Tenet has a runtime of 149 minutes and 59 seconds. This makes the film one of Nolan’s shortest, 20 minutes shorter than Interstellar, and just one minute longer than Inception.

Where was Tenet filmed?

Rarely one for minimalism, Nolan took his team around the world to shoot the film in seven countries – Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the UK and the US. With a budget of $205 million, making this his second most expensive film after The Dark Knight Rises. No expenses were spared, it seems…

Christopher Nolan Tenet John David Washington Elizabeth Debicki
Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington in Tenet. Credit: Warner Bros.

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