When Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi set out to make an observational documentary, her impetus wasn’t to focus on society’s relationship with old age or the loneliness that can come with it. She wanted to inquire about the job of private investigators and how their business had increased exponentially since the advent of social media in the last few years. The more people knew about others, the more they wanted to know.
Upon meeting Romulo Aitken, one of those detectives-for-hire who agreed to let her film his activities, Alberdi came across a case that involved a nursing home. Considering that she had previously made a film about elderly people, La once (Tea Time), pursuing this avenue made the most sense.
That decision became the seed for her latest endearing work, El Agente Topo (The Mole Agent), a film about a grandfather who becomes a spy. It’s currently shortlisted for the Academy Awards for Best Documentary and Best International Film. As part of the concept she envisioned, the director wanted the project to visually allude to the classic conventions of film noir, but that’s as much as she could plan for. In non-fiction storytelling, the artist has limited control.
Once the premise was set, Aitken placed an ad in the newspaper calling for men between 80 and 90 years old to interview for the operation: a client needed an elderly agent to infiltrate the retirement facility where their mother lives to discover if she was being neglected. One of the candidates was Sergio Chamy, who was 83 years old at the time and looking for a purpose after his wife’s passing.
“Sergio showed up and it was love at first sight. That happens to me a lot with the subjects of my films. I fall for them first and then I look for the rational arguments to have them in my film,” Alberdi tells Remezcla. In that first meeting, what impressed her the most was Chamy’s openness to talk about his feelings explicitly, which she found positively unique and sealed the deal for her. It had to be him.
“They asked him about his story and he talked about being a widower and his eyes filled with tears. In Chile, and in Latin America in general, we were raised with the notion that men don’t cry, especially older men,” she explains.
In order to protect the real investigation Aitken and Chamy were conducting, Alberdi didn’t tell the establishment the real intent of her film. She only asked them for permission to shoot people there (with the proper release forms of course). The staff had seen Alberdi’s Tea Time, so the proposition excited them. To maintain the conceit, the team started collecting footage before Chamy became one of the residents so that they could pretend like they didn’t know him. He was just another one of the characters whom they were following.
Aitken, Chamy’s boss for all intents and purposes, was in charge of communicating with him in order to ensure the adorable agent was focusing on his task (checking out whether the client’s mom was doing okay of being mistreated), and at the same provide Alberdi with opportunities to get the footage she needed.
He is willing to learn, willing to listen, and live at an age when most of us think life has already happened.
For Chamy, the experience began with a marked discomfort for what being there represented. He feared he would become a less self-sufficient person if he spent too much time in such a place. But his commitment to the mission, more than to the film itself, and his family’s support convinced him to stay. As the shooting went along, like we see in the final product, Chamy began developing strong friendships with the women there, offering them companionship and finding support in return.
“He defies all the prejudices we may have about an older person because he is very open to new experiences. He is willing to learn, willing to listen, and willing to live at an age when most of us think life has already happened,” Alberdi notes.
Given that The Mole Agent premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, just a couple months before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the film distribution landscape, the director was concerned that it wouldn’t find its audience. But those fears were put to rest as accolades were bestowed on the movie and even more so when it premiered on Netflix in Chile just a few weeks ago.
Thanks to streaming platforms, access to independent cinema has become democratized. Alberdi recalls people from marginalized neighborhoods in Santiago reaching out and expressing that The Mole Agent was the first documentary they had ever watched because it was available online as opposed to exclusively in art house cinemas in wealthier segments of the city.
The overwhelming positive response from the general public, as well as the spotlight that being an Oscar contender has added to the documentary, helped to ignite a national conversation about old age and the multitude of valid wishes and desires elderly people still have.
The Oscar contender has ignited a national conversation about old age & the multitude of valid wishes and desires elderly people still have.
“People are very moved and they tell us that after watching the movie, they called or visited their grandparents. The movie is rekindling these connections, which is what we had hoped for,” she says. As for her star, Alberdi is happy to share that he and many of the other characters we met are doing well and have even found a certain degree of fame. An anonymous fan recently sent flowers to the women at the home. In the end, the director shot an ending in which Chamy let the patron that had hired Aitken know that her mother was well taken care of; however, Alberdi decided to skip that and focus on her hero’s new friendships.
“Sergio is doing great. He calls the ladies, his friends at the home, every week. He also just opened an Instagram account. Since right now he wears a mask when he leaves his house only, a few people have recognized him. But if he were to go out without a mask people would be running after him,” she candidly concludes.
The Mole Agent is streaming on Hulu in the United States.