Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa one said that in Latin America, poverty, injustice and other social problems are too prominent to be ignored. So, the question: Can cinema change the world? has a special importance. “It obsesses me,” Chilean director Pablo Larrain told Variety a few weeks back.
“I have been around many U.S. documentary filmmakers who say that they want to change the world,” replied director Maite Alberdi in that same conversation. Alberdi’s latest feature documentary “The Mole Agent” is short-listed for both the International Feature and Documentary Oscars this year, and only her latest work to make a major cultural impact at home and abroad.
“I don’t know if we are going to change the world with documentaries, but I think that we can plant questions in people’s minds, and in the media,” she added. “There are films, documentaries, that you can plan out as a campaign to change a specific issue. We did it with ‘The Grown-Ups’ and we changed a law for the disabled here; we were successful in that sense.”
In a new video produced by CinemaChile, shared exclusively with Variety, the organization’s general director Constanza Arena moderates a conversation with another Chilean figure using her influence to spark change in Daniela Vega, star of the Academy Award winning “A Fantastic Woman,” who joins Alberdi to reflect on how AMPAS-recognized titles can affect social sea change. And how AMPAS recognition is part of that process.
“We thought that as two women so committed to film, as a mirror of reality and an engine of change, Maite and Daniela could have a dialogue that illuminates ‘The Mole Agent’ not only as the narratively innovative film it is, but above all the affect it could have on a ‘pandemic of loneliness affecting the elderly,’ which Alberdi has denounced on more than one occasion,” Arena explains of the video’s origins.
“The Mole Agent” experienced a whirlwind 2020, with Alberdi able to make a few trips when travel was realistic, such as September’s San Sebastián Film Festival where it won the Audience Award. Nominated for awards at the Spanish Academy Goyas and the Independent Spirit Awards, it is on the long list for this year’s Bafta Awards. The film was furthermore selected as one of the top five international films of the year by the U.S. National Board of Review.
Alberdi’s credits include three previous feature films, “Los Niños,” Spanish Academy Awards-nominated “La Once,” and “The Lifesaver,” as well as several short documentaries including the European Film Award-nominated short “I’m Not from Here,” about Josebe, a nursing home resident who believes she’s just moved Spain’s Basque Country to Chile when in reality she made the journey more than 70 years before.
“I think there are different reasons,” Alberdi explained to Variety when asked about her propensity to revisit themes of age and isolation. “A simple one is what one of the characters told me once: that a person between 80 and 81 years of age is like a baby between 1 and 2 years old. In one year, you see so many changes. I tried to catch that reality and the changes they undergo. And these films make you realize that there are so many ways to live old age. It also reflects on Chile’s pension system.”
Both “A Fantastic Woman” and “The Mole Agent” have social elements that have resonated in contemporary society, Arena argues in the video.
“A Fantastic Woman’s” Oscar Win for foreign-language film – now international feature film – gave new momentum to a gender identity bill which, approved in September 2018, allowed people over the age of 14 to change their name and gender in official records. It defined gender identity as a personal conviction of whether a person sees himself or herself as male or female.
“The Mole Agent” can change people’s preconceptions of retirement homes and of aging and extraordinary and multifaceted realities of old age, Alberdi and Vega agree.
“The Mole Agent’s” agenda is broader. In it, a private investigator is asked by a client to investigate possible abuse of the client’s mother in a retirement home. He places an ad in a newspaper: “Retiree wanted, 80-90 years old, self-sufficient, of good health, discreet, tech-savvy.” Alberdi’s doc feature catches multiple real-life octogenarians turning up to be interviewed for the job. “The pension system is so bad that people are looking for work,” Alberdi notes in her conversation with Vega.
The highest rates of suicide is between people of 80-90 years of age, out of loneliness and a sense of missing their former loved ones, Alberdi notes. Yet the characters are ready for new experience too, she added.
For Vega, “Sergio believes that he has a future, he wants to live new experiences. He has two options: Keep working or sit down and wait for a final day. There’s a sense of hope there,” she says.
Once embedded at the home, Sergio also drives change. One fellow retiree falls in love with him. Another may also, even if suffering senile dementia. A third woman misses her family terribly: Sergio accesses photos of children for her. These people may by 80-plus. But they’re not done yet.
Watch the entire conversation between Alberdi, Vega and Arena below.