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Alumna’s film ‘The Mole Agent’ provides heartfelt look at living in a nursing home

(Courtesy of Micromundo Producciones)

By Brandon Sanchez

April 18, 2021 7:05 p.m.

Loneliness is a daunting feeling, and “The Mole Agent” perfectly depicts the emotions it comes with all inside a gloomy nursing home.

The latest documentary produced by UCLA alumna Marcela Santibañez features an elder private investigator, Sergio Chamy, exploring the living conditions of a nursing home resident – but it soon reconfigures into a film that gives heartfelt insight into life at a small yet tightly knit home in Chile. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Santibañez recalls the five-year process of producing the documentary with its director, Maite Alberdi, and how surprised she was to find the world reacting to the project.

“The film has something that really connects with audiences worldwide,” Santibañez said. “The topic has gotten so universal that it has been quite impressive to see how people all over the world are connecting.”

Santibañez said “The Mole Agent” is a major shift from her previous documentary “Flow,” with her team increasing to an all-female crew and confronting new struggles with finding production companies that could finance her documentary. She started looking for potential funding in 2016 and ultimately said she ended up with nine production companies including Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Institute. In 2017, Santibañez and her team began shooting the documentary at the San Francisco Nursing Home in El Monte, Chile, for three months and went into postproduction in 2018 through 2019, with a long-awaited premiere in 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival.

[Related: Sundance 2020]

The film’s roots originated from Alberdi’s curiosity and the world of private investigators, which Santibañez said led to the two coming across Chamy’s extraordinary case while jumping around private agencies. She said Chamy was appointed by a private investigator to look after Sonia Perez, a resident at the nursing home, for three months after Perez’s daughter expressed concern that her mother was experiencing maltreatment from the nurses.

However, Santibañez said with more than 300 to 400 hours of footage, they felt the film’s premise evolved from Perez’s case to Chamy’s journey living in the nursing home. It became more about hearing the residents’ somber stories and journeys, including Berta Ureta’s love for Chamy and Marta Olivares’ longing to leave the nursing home and be with her late mother. Santibañez said filming in person took a toll on the crew as she felt the experiences they encountered made them emotionally exhausted. A particular story that tugged on Santibañez’s heartstrings was that of Rubira Olivares, a resident who has Alzheimer’s disease and discovers from Chamy that her family had abandoned her at the nursing home for years and stopped paying for her stay.

“Those are the moments (when) it’s very difficult to put aside the emotions when you’re there,” Santibañez said. “How can you not connect emotionally with that?”

Behind the editing process for “The Mole Agent” is Carolina Siraqyan, Alberdi’s former film editing teacher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Siraqyan said the editing process took more than 11 months to completely go through the hours of footage alongside Alberdi.

When one begins making a film, Siraqyan said there should be the question of what emotion and conflict one is trying to convey. Over the course of three months, she felt that the central conflict of the documentary was the struggle against loneliness rather than Chamy’s investigation into Perez’s situation, and she chose to work with that emotion when editing the final product.

“You have to make an arc of emotions that slowly convert into the conflict now,” Siraqyan said. “I think the emotion is the glue of the movie.”

[Related: Creators share a deeply intimate story of grief and healing in ‘Pieces of a Woman’]

Following her previous directorial projects on films such as “La Once” and “Los Niños,” Alberdi said she felt drawn to the topic of elderly people because of their ability to share individual stories that have affected their particular age group and lifestyle. Directing in the nursing home every day came with days of mundanity but also heart-wrenching moments that she said catalyzed the shared experiences of the crew with residents of the nursing home.

“I hope that, after this year, we are really conscious about distance and we start to reconnect, and this film is that: an invitation to reconnect,” Alberdi said. “It is an invitation to look within yourself and ask what you can do better.”

The Academy Award nomination marks the first time a documentary feature from Chile earned a consideration for Best Documentary Feature as well as the first time the category will have two Chilean women in the running.

Santibañez said the team wanted to portray the nursing home with as much truth as possible, ultimately satisfying the residents. She said they were lucky to come across Chamy’s case because observing him for the investigation highlighted his compassion and sympathy when engaging with other residents, providing further reason to shift the plot of the documentary. Santibañez said the universal message of the film is to encourage connections between people and the elders in their lives, and the response from the audience has shown the impressive power of what a small independent film can do.

“We live in a society that makes (elders) invisible, like they’re a burden we try not to see,” Santibañez said. “Connect with (them) and make sure that they do have a place in society and stop isolating them.”

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