It had been a while since I’d seen a film as sweepingly romantic as Maite Alberdi’s The Eternal Memory, a documentary that focuses on the lives of Augusto Góngora, an exemplary journalist who sought justice in a post-military coup Chile, and Paulina Urrutia, a stage and screen actor who served as Minister of Culture and the Arts under Michelle Bachelet. But if we didn’t know them before going into the film, we only learn about their impressive careers once we’ve fallen in love with them as human beings.
As the film begins we learn Augusto has been living with Alzheimer’s, his memory slowly fading away as he fearfully grasps at the remains of what he can still make sense of. It’s Paulina who often brings him back to the light, becoming the ultimate life companion in every way possible. In addition to the love story between Augusto and Paulina, the film is a love letter to the resilience of Chile, a country that has overcome endless horrors en route to democracy.
Alberdi, who has shown her ability to capture the most thrilling stories in periods of isolation does it again, as a large part of the film takes place during lockdown in Chile, where Augusto and Paulina, in many ways, fall in love as if for the first time. Captured with a sensitivity that turns every moment into a dance between the unforgettable and the ephemeral, The Eternal Memory is a powerful historical document that reminds us that history is made by the people living within systems that sometimes suggest they’re disposable.
With the film arriving in U.S. theaters, we spoke to Alberdi and Urrutia about the making of the documentary.
The Film Stage: Congratulations on the film––absolutely gorgeous. Watching it I thought a lot about my grandmother. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2005, and four years later there was a US-backed military coup d’etat in my home country, Honduras. By then my grandmother’s memory had become quite feeble and in many ways––given all the other coups, dictatorships, and terrible things she’d lived through––I felt a strange sense of gratefulness knowing she was oblivious to what was happening then. It also made me think about how much our countries have suffered and how we carry that pain with us everywhere. I really hope this isn’t insensitive to ask of you, Paulina, but as Augusto’s memory went away, were you ever grateful there were hurtful things happening around him that he wasn’t aware of?
Paulina Urrutia: I’m not sure if you saw they have just assassinated Ecuadorian presidential pre-candidate [Fernando Villavicencio] and, like you say, in Latin America we’re always going through painful experiences. In the case of memory, I was never timid about Augusto remembering difficult moments––they are part of our lives. He said so himself: it’s important to be conscious and aware of what we experienced so we can think and believe in the possibility of a better future.
Maite: this and The Mole Agent are spiritual siblings. I looked up Chilean demographic statistics and saw that almost 13% of the population are people ages 60 and up. Although it seems like a small percentage compared to the huge amount of younger people, did you ever feel senior citizens were being forgotten about, especially when they became such a vulnerable group when the pandemic started?
Maite Alberdi: More than senior citizens I would say, for dependent people, lockdown had to do with fragility, in the same way the children with Down syndrome in Los niños lived in a bubble, isolated from the rest of society. That’s what draws me in: how do we take care of them through integration rather than separation? How do we all contribute to taking care of others? It’s the same with maternity for me: sometimes mothers hide their children from work. We try to figure out things on our own and we can’t. There are moments when we all need to take care of someone and it’s not only the ill person who’s isolated, but their caretakers as well. In some ways all my recent films talk about that.
The film is a romance for the ages. I adored how it centers such a unique love story and I have to confess I sobbed watching it twice. I read the film was initially conceived as a drama, so I wonder how you discovered this was a romantic film instead?
Alberdi: That’s odd; I never felt it was a drama. I always saw it as a romantic film. Some people say they’re afraid to watch it because of the suffering and Alzheimer’s, but you don’t suffer with the film. There’s melancholy but it’s mostly a celebration of real love and good times. The film turns on its head the idea of what, on paper, can look terrible, but in reality is an invitation to joy. Unlike fiction, documentaries have no genre. Life has no genre so documentaries have a little bit of everything.
Paulina, can you share a bit about bringing Augusto to work with you? The scenes where we see him sitting at the theater are just wonderful, there’s such a lovely spark of wonder in his eyes. It reminded me of the healing power of art.
Urrutia: That’s what happened, actually: I had to keep working after Augusto got sick, so instead of isolating him I made him a part of my work as well. The most beautiful thing you see in the movie is how he went to the theater––he came with me to the TV studio where he worked where I was shooting a series. Throughout that process it wasn’t just me taking care of him, but all my colleagues and coworkers. That proves how beautiful it is when people help each other and all of us can do that––not just in our family or friends, but society benefits when people with disabilities are included.
Both of you spent a lifetime in front of the cameras, which creates an instant legacy. There’s a record of who you were that will exist forever. Did the two of you ever discuss that when you spoke about your work? And for you as an actor how is it to be yourself in front of the camera as opposed to playing a part?
Urrutia: We never spoke about that. I never thought I’d be in a documentary, especially not after Augusto became ill, but for him it was always clear. When Maite asked if he wanted to do this, he said yes instantly. We wanted him to wait, but he was sure from the start. You’ve watched the movie more than once so you know it truly reflects Augusto’s worldview. When we watched the film and realized this came across so clearly, we understood why he always wanted to do it.
He was always shooting home films. What did he do with those? Did you sit together and watch them?
Urrutia: Not at all. In fact, can you imagine how surprised I was when I ended up watching the footage he’d shot for the first time when I watched the documentary? [Laughs] I had never seen images of that trip we took to the south of Chile; even the footage of his book release was something we discovered by accident.
Alberdi: We actually have never talked about this, Paulina, but back then people didn’t record as much as we do today. People shot tapes and never did anything with them. What I got from Paulina was a collection of tapes and a Handycam with some incredible footage. Nowadays we shoot 10,000x more, we take more pictures, and all of those images will also be lost because classifying them is a lot of work. People like taking images but not archiving them.
Urrutia: We never knew what would happen to these images.
Alberdi: You had the same compulsion we do, of capturing a moment. This is what we ended up doing as we shot the film: we had to capture moments in Augusto’s life.
During lockdown, you taught Paulina how to use the camera since you weren’t able to be with them. Paulina became an extension of you.
Alberdi: I didn’t direct her much. I asked her if we should keep shooting when the pandemic started; when she said yes I sent her the camera and gave her some guidelines she never understood fully. [Paulina laughs] I asked her to capture as much as she could. She was very intuitive––she didn’t know what I would do with the footage. Lockdown in Chile went on forever, so in a way, by making the film, I was able to be with them: we exchanged messages, voice notes, and spoke about the things they did daily. We never talked about directing or screenwriting.
Did it give you a sense of comfort as if you were together physically?
Alberdi: Yes, it’s hilarious because when I was editing and going through all our voice notes, so many of them are about going to the bathroom. They became like a life journal.
Urrutia: Since this went on for so long, at one point I felt the film would never be made, so when Maite asked me if I wanted to shoot the footage myself, I was happy to do so. I recorded and recorded, never truly self-aware of being around the camera, I never looked at what I shot. I honestly didn’t know what any of the buttons did. I was never able to focus, so it’s a very authentic footage because I never thought it would make it into the film. I thought Maite would use it as context or to think about picking up the film after lockdown. I doubt Maite thought any of this badly shot footage would make it to the final cut. [Laughs]
Alberdi: I thought of it as research, a way to keep continuity going with the hopes we’d resume the movie later.
As an actor being themselves on camera, how were you able to be OK showing this vulnerability onscreen?
Urrutia: I always thought this was a documentary about Augusto. We had a very different relationship with the camera––he loved being in front of it and never had any conflict with the camera. In my case, the nature of an actor is to forget about the camera. When we agreed to make the film I took it on as an actor. I said yes and then had to stick to it. I believe I serve as a bridge for Augusto to speak and communicate. That was our relationship near the end.
I was so sorry to read about Augusto’s passing earlier this year. What has it been like to keep showing the film now he’s no longer with us?
Urrutia: I watched the movie with him when he was very ill. Watching it now that he’s gone is a gift. That’s what art does, isn’t it? It keeps alive the image of someone who didn’t just do so much for me and his family, but for his country. It’s a magical coincidence that Maite’s glorious work is being released on the 50th anniversary of the Chilean coup d’etat. It’s so meaningful that art can serve this way to the memory of a country.
Alberdi: Pauli said it all. We’re all remembering this year, commemorating. Augusto is the perfect figure to remind us of the meaning of democracy. His ethic as a communicator is something we should commemorate now, as one of his friends said: always from a place of tenderness. That’s what we miss the most from him. Tenderness has disappeared from the media; Augusto is a reminder of why we need that so much.
The Eternal Memory is now in theaters.