How 2021 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, The Mole Agent, plays on ambiguity of fiction-documentary divide
The premise of The Mole Agent comes straight out of a spy thriller: a detective agency in Santiago wants to investigate possible elder abuse at an old age home in the city. The only way it could do this is by planting a “mole”, a senior citizen who will report happenings from within the institution.
The Academy Award for Best Documentary was first given in 1943, a year after the United States had entered what would be known as the Second World War. Hollywood saw its top talent being mobilised for the cause. Actors and directors got busy promoting army recruitments, putting on shows for GIs abroad, selling war bonds and producing propaganda films. The Academy Award for these productions, broadly called documentaries, was part of Hollywood’s continuing contribution to the war effort.
A look at the 25 works nominated for the first edition of the award gives an idea of how loose the definition of a documentary was. Among the nominees are long and short films, pictures publicly and privately produced, animation and live action works. The only commonality they share — their only basis in reality, as it were — is an acknowledgement of and a support for the Allied participation in the war.
“What documentaries really have in common,” wrote British critic Judith Williamson, “is not so much truth, as the idea that they are true.” Even early landmarks of “documentary” filmmaking such as Nanook of the North (1922) tweaked the reality they depicted for poetic effect. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, filmmakers around the world continued to render the distinction between fiction and documentary ever more indeterminate.
Even so, the distinction persists, both in the industry and in popular imagination. Distributors, lobbyists and award committees still prefer boxing documentaries into a single marketable category. One of the nominees for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary, the Chilean film The Mole Agent directed by Maite Alberdi, plays on the ambiguity of the fiction-documentary divide, repurposing elements from mainstream moviemaking tradition to real-world ends.
The premise of The Mole Agent comes straight out of a spy thriller: a detective agency in Santiago wants to investigate possible elder abuse at an old age home in the city. The only way it could do this is by planting a “mole”, a senior citizen who will report happenings from within the institution. Sergio, an octogenarian and a recent widower, is hired for the job from among several candidates. Romulo, the head of the agency, briefs him on his mission and trains him in the use of various electronic gadgets. Sergio’s uneasiness with technology makes for some of the film’s funniest passages, as does director Alberdi’s ironic use of film noir elements.
After Sergio checks into the nursing home, we are introduced to a select few residents, who become veritable characters in the film: Rubira who keeps forgetting whether her children visit her, Marta the restless soul who is pacified by fake calls from an inexistant mother, Berta who takes a liking to Sergio, Petita the in-house poet, among others. The occupants of the home are predominantly women, and as a rooster in a hen house, the impeccable Sergio becomes something of a heartthrob. Even as he secretly reports back to Romulo over the phone, he too grows closer to the women, listening to what they have to say, complimenting them, and helping them out with their anxieties.
While supposedly a real-life account, the documentary garb of The Mole Agent comes off early into the film. Following Sergio’s admission into the home, we are made witness to a host of interactions between the residents. These are recorded by a filmmaking crew present at the facility even before the arrival of our protagonist. The occupants of the house notice these cameras and microphones, sometimes wary of this foreign presence.
Notwithstanding Romulo’s alibi that the crew has been sent there on the pretext of making a documentary about the home, the film’s fictionalisation becomes apparent, especially in shots that anticipate Sergio’s movements into and out of certain spaces. Romulo gives Sergio hidden recording equipment, but we hardly see any footage from it that isn’t already covered by the on-site cameras. Besides, with a documentary crew on site, it is patent that the home’s management would be on their best behaviour, forestalling any shocking discovery Sergio might make.
The Mole Agent thus makes no bones about its fictional nature. Even so, the film revives certain questions about documentary ethics, questions also confronted by any discipline engaging with a social other. The nursing home has evidently consented to participating in the film, but the consent of the residents themselves, who are also filmed during their less-than-dignified moments, remains open to discussion.
This is, of course, the challenge involved in dealing with subjects whose capacity for informed consent may be compromised. When American documentarian Frederick Wiseman filmed the disturbing everyday operations of a state-run institution for the criminally insane in Titicut Follies (1967), there were objections that his film violated the right to privacy of the inmates, whose consent could never stand scrutiny anyway.
Likewise, some of the elders in The Mole Agent, suffering to various degrees from memory loss, delusion or general disconnect, may not entirely have been at ease being filmed had they been in the best of their health. However, despite occasional humour at their cost, the film treats them with dignity and affection, recognising the complexities of their experience. It manages to resolve whatever moral quandary its premise may have posed by siding resolutely with the residents. Alberdi’s film ultimately speaks for and with the elders, not about them.
In the final minutes, Sergio concludes in his report that there is no abuse at the facility, and that what’s ailing the residents is simply interminable loneliness. This statement of purpose, so to speak, clarifies the original conceit of The Mole Agent. Rather than sustaining a mystery around Sergio’s presence at the establishment, the film chooses to designate him as a “spy” right at the outset, preparing the audience for some sordid revelations through his eyes. But the revelations never come. Instead of penetrating a hermetic world for our thrill, the film turns outward, reflecting our voyeuristic desire back at us: the infiltrator becomes an insider, reciprocates the love and trust of the residents, and ends up incriminating the very person who hired him.
In a way, then, the political argument of The Mole Agent is antithetical to the institutional critique of Titicut Follies. The establishment in question is less a failure in itself than a symptom of a larger failure: the superannuation of the aged once they have outlived their social utility. The nursing home is strewn with individuals whose grown-up children are too busy with their own lives to take care of or even visit their parents, those who have lost their spouses and are looking for romantic validation, and those who are struggling simply to keep their personhood intact.
When Romulo puts out an advertisement seeking super-senior citizens for a job, numerous men line up for the audition. In his interview, Sergio invokes the difficulty of finding a job as an octogenarian and remarks how mentally liberating it feels to be ‘useful’ again. Having been desperately lonely following the demise of his wife, the new project gives him a sense of purpose, something that seems inaccessible to most other residents of the nursing home.
So despite juggling documentary and fictional elements, The Mole Agent doesn’t intend to question ideas of truth. On the contrary, it is determined to state a simple truth about society, which it deems is best conveyed by the hybrid form it has chosen.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
Quo Vadis, Aida? manages to open up the film from this narrow narrative perspective to larger political questions in a fairly organic manner.
Naomi Watts will also serve as executive producer of Goodnight Mommy.