Francisca Ortiz, The Mitchell Centre for Social Network Analysis, University of Manchester.
**Spoiler Alert: This blog post assumed that you already saw the movie “The mole agent”. If you would like to avoid spoilers, do no continue reading until you have the opportunity to look at the movie. In the next link, you can find how to see it, depending on the country you are based on: https://themoleagentfilm.com. **
“The mole agent” was released in September of 2020, and in fact, has been recently nominated to prizes as the Academic and Goya Awards, among others. The first thing that anyone needs to know is that we are talking about a documentary. Everything that happens is real. The director of this movie is Maite Alberdi. She also directed the movie “Teatime” in 2015 about a group of older women followed by the cameras for a while. She has worked with older people before, and definitely, you can notice that in the film. In fact, in my personal case, as a researcher that had interviewed older people and spend much time with them in ethnographies, it was easy to relate to the content—a reason why I would recommend to any social gerontologist look this moving and wonderful film.
The film occurs in a nursing home in Chile, South America. Sergio Chamy is the main character, an older men contract by Romulo Aitken (from the Investigation Police PDI) to live three months in a nursing home as a spy. His mission is to keep an eye on Sonia Perez, one older woman of the residency whose daughter want to know if she has been well cared by the institution. The complete narrative starts from there. It changed through the days working topics as loneliness, friendship, and many other emotions lived by their protagonists: the older people living in there. In this post, I would like to talk briefly about how the movie portrays these crucial three issues inside a nursing home from the older people’s perspective.
Sergio described the current situation of Marta in the nursing home: “They fool Marta and make her believe that her mother is calling, but it is really the caregivers. They do this so she can be at ease because nobody visits her”. In another moment, Mrs Rubira mentioned, “Before I grew old, I did everything for them, for my grandchildren, children, for everyone. And when I started to get sick… Since the old woman was not of any use anymore, they had to put her away”. Meantime, Berta said proudly, “Look, since I am autonomous, thanks to God and the Virgin Mary, I can still, God willing, get around by myself even at my age. I go to the hospital by myself. I do things all by myself, and I go everywhere by myself,”. Another older woman comments, “I go to bed so early. What else can I do alone?”
The fact that this documentary shows us the reality inside of a nursing home, made a powerful message. Anything that happens is genuine. Many scenes show the daily lives of those older people and how they shared a feeling of loneliness. That is the essential element that keeps them all together though their circumstances: they all shared the feeling of loneliness, and therefore, they all accompany each other to cope with that loneliness. Exactly as Sergio concluded at the end of the movie: “The residents here feel lonely. They are not being visited, and some have been abandoned. Loneliness is the worst thing about this place”.
Many of them shared the feeling of loneliness as we could identify through the movie. In fact, loneliness is such an intimate feeling that it is predominantly recognisable trough the images and silences among characters. Even though they have people around them to talk to every day, that does not necessarily imply that they do not feel alone. This is precisely what the film manages to unmask: loneliness is not about having people around you; it is a deeper, lasting and difficult feeling to counteract. Loneliness is about not having a real human connection.
The construction of a friendship is a process but sometimes has a lot to do with the context. In the nursing home, all were there in the same conditions. They do not choose with whom to live, but still, they are together in this. We can see through the documentary how those older people change their relationships between them. Evolving some of them into beautiful friendships. In a moment of the movie, Rubira was sitting in silence in the hall. Sergio came closer and realised something was wrong. She confesses to him that she was feeling lost and did not recognise where she was. Sergio kindly said to her, “Do not worry about me. Go ahead and cry. Because it is a way to vent your emotions. Cry. Cry. That will make you feel better. Cry. That will calm you down”. After this, we hear Sergio asking Romulo for some pictures of Rubira’s family. Sergio argues that “She would like that very much. And I am worried about her mental state”. That supports was not part of Sergio’s job, even though he is worried and tried to help because they are friends. This specific aspect is one that we are not used to talking too much about it in research, and maybe it is interesting for future studies.
In the celebration of Sergio’s birthday, he gets emotional. Marta, who was sitting close, realised it and took his hand in a symbol of support. Sergio looks at Marta and smile. They both are close friends. Almost at the end of the documentary, Sergio is at the same table with Sonia and Marta. Then, Marta asked him why he is leaving the place. So, Sergio answered and finished saying: “I promise I will visit. You are my friends now. You have been very kind to me”. The fact that Sergio now understands the reality of the two makes them close friends. They shared something.
Sergio talks with Berta about his situation. He said: “My wife is still here (mind), and here (heart). I am still grieving; I do not need to go out with anyone”. In another scene, we see one older woman singing alone, “love, love, love…”. “Who told you that I argued with the nurse?” Sergio asked angrily to Romulo in a phone call. Sonia said, “who else can recite poetry to us around here? Nobody, not a person. Especially not my husband”. Petronila talks about her life: “I had four children, leaving all my job for my old age, but here I am, and there is not that much joy. All four of them, I raised them, and what? They are quite ungrateful. They are not the kind who comes around every Sunday. Nevertheless, I do not reproach them because to each his own”.
This diversity of emotions reflects, at the same time, the diversity among older people. In general, this film portrays an excellent way the roller-coaster of emotions is happening inside a nursing home. There is sadness, happiness, angriness, sickness, celebrations, grief, friendship, heartbreak and care, among many other possible ones. One of the bigger challenges as researchers of social gerontology in these places is to understand all those emotions. Even though sometimes they are beyond our comprehension.
I would definitely recommend this documentary as a researcher, especially for those who plan to work inside a nursing home or in a similar context with structural disadvantages affecting older people, as in Chile. Doing observations, ethnography and life histories is sometimes overwhelming. That is visible through the documentary in Sergio’s approach to be living there. An aspect that all the ones who had done this type of approach can relate.
Finally, two critical topics maybe are for another documentary in itself. First, we saw the ageing population’s feminisation through the images: almost all the people were a woman. However, it could be interesting to get a deeper understanding of their situation. Second, the implicit ageism in some of the practices inside of the nursing home. There were some moments in which this appears, as in the relationship between Romulo and Sergio and some nurses with Marta. It seems that ageism in those residencies could have been another interesting approach for the documentary, particularly if we consider certain practices’ infantilisation.
This documentary gives a lot to reflect. In this post, I only manage to comments briefly on three of them, but definitely, there are many others. As I said at the start, the fact that everything in the movie is real, the mentioned its relevance because, and in this, I agreed with the director, here “The reality is more strong than the fiction“.