‘The Eternal Memory’ Interview: Maite Alberdi about her new documentary

Maite Alberdi’s heartfelt The Eternal Memory is a poignant romance that doubles as a metaphor for Chilean dictatorship.

When Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi decided to document the impact of Alzheimer’s on married couple Augusto Góngora and Paula Urrutia, she took her time. “I expected to do a movie for 10 or 20 years,” the director said ahead of his Sundance premiere. “My producers always wanted to know what the deadline was. I really wanted to be with them to the end.”

As it turns out, the Oscar-nominated director of The Mole Agent got to that point much quicker than expected. The isolation of the pandemic caused Góngora, a respected journalist known for his coverage of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and its aftermath, to lose touch with reality at an accelerated pace. “We didn’t expect it to deteriorate so quickly,” said Alberdi. “The 12 months of a year was like 12 years considering how he lost his vocabulary and mobility.” At one point, Góngora said he felt like he wasn’t there anymore. “It was really clear to us,” she said. “He was aware that he wasn’t there.”

The result is one of the most personal portrayals of Alzheimer’s ever captured on camera, a poignant marriage story and a national metaphor. As Alberdi compiled around 40 hours of footage, in addition to 20 more that Urrutia recorded when the couple were alone, the film evolved beyond intimate drama to explore how the historical trauma of dictatorship can fade over time. Even as Góngora begins to forget his surroundings, he seems to remember the struggles of the past in minute detail, including the murder of his colleague. He also remembers in great detail how he responded to the thousands of people who disappeared during Pinochet’s rule.

“That’s what built the whole idea of ​​memory in the film for me,” Alberdi said. “You have to reconnect with historical memory through pain and empathy.”

Alberdi first met the couple in 2018 while he was teaching at a Chilean university, where Urrutia directed local productions. When attending a rehearsal, Alberdi noticed that Urrutia allowed her husband to sit in the room and ask questions about what was going on around him as he became confused. They seemed to be having fun together despite his apparent dementia. “I was totally focused on how they can have a loving relationship, how they can have desire despite the memory loss,” she said. “I couldn’t believe they were still a couple.”

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 25: Director Maite Alberdi attends the 2020 Sundance Film Festival - "The Mole Agent" Premiered at the Egyptian Theater on January 25, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

Maite Alberdi

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The Eternal Memory arrives in Sundance seeking US distribution as Chile undergoes tremendous institutional changes, including a recurring attempt to revise its constitution for a new democratic era. The film captures the country’s rapid upheaval, with the couple’s struggles speaking of a desire to find a foothold in the world that brought them together. In an opening scene, Urrutia, a veteran actress and former Minister of Culture for the Arts, wakes up with her husband to declare their relationship and love for each other as they have done many times before.

Its emotional dynamic – and its broader connotations – were not part of the original plan. “Paulina didn’t see a love story there,” Alberdi said. “She saw it as an important Alzheimer’s archive, more of a medical situation.”

It was Góngora, in a moment of clarity, who encouraged his wife to make the project a part of her life. Having spent much of his life in front of the camera, he expressed a desire to be transparent about his evolving state of mind. “Paulina always told me that he was always interested in photographing precariousness and fragility,” said Alberdi. “When he was scared, he would stare at the camera. That was a matter of course for him.”

The pandemic meant she relied on Urrutia to capture much of the footage herself. It ended with a surprising number of personal moments between the pair, some even too intimate for what she intended. “It was so delicate,” she said. “We could have shown a lot because of their intimacy, but it was a question of what was tolerable for the audience.”

She noted with satisfaction that the film provided a portal into Chilean history, placing it alongside other contemporary films that grapple with the country’s past, from Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light to Pablo Larraín’s No. The film spotlights their relationship while showing how it was forged in an era marked by resistance. “This film invites you to feel the story, not just see the facts, but also see the facts from the present,” Alberdi said.

That gave her company an activist hook. While the 40-year-old documentary filmmaker grew up in a household with direct memories of the Pinochet era, the time is slipping further and further down the history books. “Now there’s a whole generation that just reads facts and doesn’t believe history,” she said. “My generation and the elders hear and feel the pain.”

Alberdi realized that the success of The Mole Agent (currently in development as a TV series), followed by The Eternal Memory, could make it seem like she was doubling down on cinematic explorations of old age. “More than the aging process, it’s fragility or dependency,” she said. “I’m more concerned with integration – how can you embrace fragility and not be afraid of it? How do we deal with this in a normal way? As Paulina said, we can only move forward as a society if everyone takes care of someone else at some point in their lives.”

The Eternal Memory will premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is aiming for US distribution.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/the-eternal-memory-interview-maite-alberdi-1234802347/ ‘The Eternal Memory’ Interview: Maite Alberdi about her new documentary

Lindsay Lowe

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