In The Eternal Memory, Oscar-nominated Chilean director-producer Maite Alberdi (The Mole Agent) documents the lives of a celebrity couple – Chilean TV presenter, journalist and author Augusto Góngora and actor and former minister of culture Paulina Urrutia – following Góngora’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s in 2014. After Urrutia became Góngora’s full-time carer, Alberdi films their relationship as they learn to live with his progressing illness and the effects of dementia.
The resulting film comes at a special point in Chilean political history, 50 years on from the military coup d’état in 1973 that broke Chile’s democratic order and removed the democratic socialist president Salvador Allende. During the dark years that followed under General Augusto Pinochet, thousands of people were tortured, executed, killed or disappeared. Despite losing his memory, Góngora never forgets the close friend who he lost during those years. He still remembers the pain. And so, in the shadow of the global rise of nationalism today, Alberdi’s film surfaces the intolerable emotions inflicted by those tragic events, highlighting the importance of historical memory even as Góngora’s private memories fade.
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Prior to the UK premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, we sat down with Alberdi to discuss what inspired her about Góngora and Urrutia’s relationship, and the film’s layers of love and pain.
How much did you know about Augusto Góngora and Paulina Urrutia prior to making the film?
Augusto Góngora has been very important for me since when I was a teenager, and for a lot of people in Chile. He was presenter of the only cultural programme that existed in Chilean television, called Cinema Plus Video, in which he analysed scenes from films and documentaries. I admired both him and Paulina, who was a very important actress and politician in Chile. We didn’t have a personal relationship until I invited them to make the film. We shot for five years, so it developed into a long relationship.
Why did you decide to make a film about Alzheimer’s?
I usually see people with Alzheimer’s completely isolated from society, but Paulina was taking Augusto to work with her, and when I saw them in a work context I saw two people who really wanted to be together. But for me it was never a film about Alzheimer’s; that was only the context. It’s a film about a loving relationship and about what you always remember. He always remembers his love, his pain and his obsession. So, it’s a film about what is kept in the body forever.
Did you have an audience in mind while making it?
The film is not for a niche audience. I think it’s a very open film. In theatres I’ve been seeing audiences of different ages, and both teenagers and adults love it because it’s a love story, it’s a universal film.
There’s a powerful moment in the film when Paulina reads to Augusto a passage from his book about memory and identity in relation to the crimes of Pinochet’s dictatorship. How would you translate it?
As a man who fought for political and historical memory, ironically he loses his, but he always remembers his friend whom he lost during the dictatorship. There is archive footage in the film from a book launch in 1989 when he says people in Chile have to reconstruct the emotional memory and that numbers and statistics aren’t enough – they must mourn with their emotional memories. And here’s a film of a man that never forgets his emotional memory. I think the film is speaking about historical memory, saying we cannot erase the pain and emotions, we must narrate our historical memory from the emotional side.
What did you learn from making the film?
One thing I learned is that memory is not related to information or a rational memory. I saw a man that never forgot his wife until the end; he never forgot his feelings, and he had an identity until the end. At the same time, I learned that there is not one way to be a couple. Augusto and Paulina could reconstruct their relationship in so many ways because they were in love until the end. And that was unbelievable for me, because if you read it as a storyline it feels like a drama. But for me it’s not a drama. I never felt pain shooting the film, because they were happy all the time.
What challenges did you face during production?
I was shooting for three years before the pandemic arrived, but then I had to send the camera to them for Paulina to shoot by herself for a year. It took a while to understand how to integrate that material, because in the beginning I thought it was only research material, a kind of diary for us during the pandemic. I never thought that it was going to be part of the film. But then a year after I’d received this material, we discovered the film. It was a big lesson for me as filmmaker, because I have always been trying to have the perfect shot in documentaries. In this case, it’s completely out of focus; it’s dark, she doesn’t know how to use the camera, but it’s so profound and intimate that you don’t care about this stuff.
How do you want your film to contribute towards a better future?
I think it’s a big contribution for caregivers, as it shows the way to be patient, and how alone caregivers are in general. But this film is just one example, it’s not the rule. For me it’s also about a big act of love when it comes to understanding when you need to take a family member with Alzheimer’s to an institution because you can no longer take care of them. Paulina did it all alone until the end, but it’s not the only way.
What were you trying to communicate in relation to Chile’s history?
I think the film has been very important this year because we never expected the return of nationalism. It came to say that you cannot erase the pain from people’s memory. Though Augusto lost his memory, he still remembered the pain. The pain is there in a country, so you cannot negate that. They can interpret history, but they can’t interpret the feelings of a country.
The Eternal Memory is in cinemas from 10 November. It screened at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.
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