A few years ago, the most unusual possible classified appeared on the employment pages of the Chilean newspaper The Mercury: “Elderly man is needed: retired between 80 and 90 years old. Self-reliant, in good health, discreet and with technology management ”. The message was written by a private detective looking for an old man who could infiltrate a nursing home as a spy, and investigate whether or not the staff abused a woman (whose daughter, or “client”, suspected that something strange was happening) . “Am I crazy or what the hell?” Sergio Chamy thought when he read the ad, an elderly widower who had no idea how to make a video call but was urgently seeking to change his life routine. “You have to be very subtle,” the detective asks Chamy. “Without anyone noticing, because if they discover you, that’s how far the hit will come. [el trabajo]”.
But there was an even more particular element in this espionage work: during his mission, Chamy would be filmed by a team led by the Chilean documentary director Maite Alberdi (known for other films as Children, on boys with down syndrome, the The Eleven, about a group of older women who had been friends for decades). Alberdi (Santiago de Chile, 37 years old) had already infiltrated this nursing home, thinking that his new feature film would end in a major complaint about the mistreatment of the elderly. The end result was totally the opposite: Top Agent (2020), a documentary filmed as film noir and steeped in humor and tenderness, reveals more about the abandonment of elderly care women by their families than by household staff. “Loneliness is the worst thing about this place,” Chamy tells his boss at one point.
Top Agent, which premiered at the end of last year and can currently be seen on Netflix, has been a milestone in the history of Chilean cinema. It has been shortlisted at the Oscars in two categories –best documentary and best foreign film–, it won an audience award at the San Sebastián film festival, and more recently it was nominated for the Goya awards. El PAÍS spoke with Alberdi about the film that has captivated international audiences.
Ask. How was the process of managing to film such intimate moments in this nursing home? There is a declaration of love from a woman to Sergio, and another with the onset of Alzheimer’s who breaks down in tears in front of the cameras.
Answer. The filming process took about four months and it was a process in which we became part of this place, we are there all day with the camera. We went into filming as a team before Sergio arrived, and by being there everyone was aware that we were recording it. We interact but in a way that can be seen: we are accompanying Sergio in this process in which he managed to establish some links, that if he had not had him as a character, those links would probably not exist. What he does with these people, like giving them time, I think is the same thing we did with the camera. It is a camera that is there, that is there with patience, that is not directing scenes. There were days when we didn’t record anything and the camera was waiting.
So it is this camera that awaits, and that also accompanies. There are ladies who are alone, who sometimes are alone all day, and now the camera has begun to be there. In that accompaniment, I feel that they began to build a confidence that reaches the scene that you say: someone with the confidence to cry in front of his friend, and cry in front of a camera, very aware that we were there. But it is not just a camera, it is a group that has welcomed her, and that has listened to her, that has kept her company for a couple of months. [El documental] It is made from a space of welcome and spontaneous relationships that occurred, links that were built, and that could not be directed. It happens from waiting, patience, and time.
P. The documentary is very respectful to the people it films, but they don’t know that you were also a mole agent like Sergio, and they trusted you to film but then they saw a very different result than what they expected. Did this create dilemmas for you?
R. Of course there is a big ethical dilemma. They did not know the specific history of the Top Agent, in the sense that they didn’t know the synopsis. But the subject that we present to you, I think, is the subject of the film. We told them that it was going to be a documentary about the elderly and everything that happened there, and that we wanted to film the good and the bad, and that we were going to film them all day. Of course, they do not know that I was filming a spy, and I feel that I entered as without being transparent with the story. There I was faced with an ethical dilemma. But at the same time, they felt when they saw the movie, that the movie represented them super well. That has to do with the fact that we actually show what that daily was.
I started from the prejudice that something bad was happening there [en el hogar de ancianos], because we were investigating it. That too, somehow, unconsciously, kind of enabled me to make this lie. When I started to realize that this place is good, I clearly had a dilemma of ‘I did not tell that this was a spy movie, and I was not transparent, and I actually entered this place with another excuse’. But from the moment they see it, and that it fascinates them, and that they promote it, and that they feel that it represents them, that dilemma is also diluted.
P. Did you also think it was going to be one more investigative documentary to denounce abuse?
R. Totally, I entered from prejudice to see a situation of abuse, and also like I was going to make a detective movie where the case was super important, and the evidence, and what happened, and the client. When in reality you realize that the most important thing is the relationship and the bond that occurs where there are older people open to the experience. From there, from giving away time for identities to appear, I feel that what Sergio does in the film is that he goes to another place and the investigation does not matter so much.
My detective movie is actually an excuse to see a subject that, without that excuse, perhaps no one would see. If we invite the public to see a documentary about how lonely older people feel, I am not going to see it. But here it is the other way around. My excuse, the film that I wanted to make at the beginning, in the end ends up being a hook that takes the viewer’s hand to face issues that we do not want to talk about, that we do not want to look at, and that in general we do not put on the table. We are not talking about how we want to age. As children we talk a lot about how we want to grow up. When we are young we think of the adult we want to be. But they never ask us about how old we want to be.
P. This is an issue that has been discussed more since the social explosion in Chile, especially the pension system for the elderly. What is this nursing home a metaphor for in today’s context?
R. I think it is a film in which there are several things that account for the current political context. One is the bad pension system that older people have, and a new aging where life expectancy has increased but not necessarily the opportunities and labor and social insertion, and the will to live. So this increase in life expectancy has not been associated with a new life, or a new stage that is beginning. Rather, old age is still linked to a stage of closing opportunities. In this new political context, where new opportunities and new horizons are being opened to minorities – there are many types of minorities and one of them is the elderly – and where significant discrimination has been exercised against the elderly, this What film does is account for a larger group that wants to work, that wants to be active. The first sequence of the film shows that, and it raises the question of how we want to age. It is a question about the future.
In this context in which we are thinking of a new Constitution, and that we are thinking of the country we want to have, part of that future is a projection of how we want to grow, how we want to grow individually, and how we want to grow as a community. It is today’s political question. In what conditions? How do we dream? With what links? In what places? How do we build bridges between these dependent people and society? What Chile has done, in general, is that all the people who are dependent for some reason, physical or mental, isolate themselves. And they are isolated in such a way that no type of link is generated. That isolation is what we have to break. And that is part of the discussions that are on the table today also in the creation of the new Constitution.
P. What has happened in this place of the elderly with the pandemic?
R. Of course there were many losses due to the covid, the elderly were the most affected. But the strongest thing here for me is to think that in this place there was a previous pandemic, which was the pandemic of loneliness. They were already socially isolated, the doors of their home were metaphorically closed before the confinement. Many of them did not have a visitor, there is a character who has not had a visitor for two years. Or funerals where relatives did not arrive. Of course, the pandemic forced them to confine themselves and officially close the doors. But here there was a closure that had already happened symbolically. People were not entering and they were in a bubble of isolation.
For me, the character of Marta, who is there at the gate like ‘I want to go out and I want to go to another time’, no matter how much she has dementia, she is representing them all. In it is the previous confinement. So what happened to the pandemic? It made us who are outside aware and we began to ask ourselves “oh, how long have I not seen my father or my grandfather or my grandmother?”. People started calling and began to think how long it has been since I saw them. But the conscience was for the others, not for those who were there [en el hogar de ancianos], that they were already alone and isolated.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.