Imagine, if you can, a journalist that combines the moral authority of Edward R. Murrow and the fearlessness of WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle. Add up the cultural influence of Dick Cavett. Now, put him in Late XX Century Latin America, and you will be halfway, but not quite there, at figuring out who Augusto Góngora was.
The Chilean reporter produced a clandestine news show that covered the events the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship tried to hide. People would pass the videotapes hand to hand since no TV station would dare broadcast them. He co-authored “Chile, The Forbidden Memory” (1989), a historical recount of the horrifying human rights violations committed by the regime - that the book has not been translated and re edited to coincide with the movie feels like a missed opportunity. Once the dictator went to the dustbin of history, he settled in public television and developed programs about literature, film, and arts. He even dabbled into acting for legendary director Raul Ruiz’s limited series “La Recta Provincia” (2007).
Scrutinizing life was Góngora’s call, but not even the Chileans who grew up watching him could anticipate his heroic, final gesture. Diagnosed with Alzheimer, Góngora agreed to let filmmaker Maite Alberdi record how he lived with the degenerative disease and his day-to-day life with his wife, Paulina Urrutia. The resulting movie, “The Eternal Memory,” opens this week in the United States. It took the Best World Documentary Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and might as well be the frontrunner for the 2024 Oscars. Alberdi is no stranger to Award season. Her previous film, “The Mole Agent” (2021), was nominated - and in one of those crazy Academy fouls, the prize went to “My Octopus Teacher” (2020).
“The Mole Agent” followed an octogenarian man recruited by a private investigator to infiltrate a retirement community and look for evidence of elderly abuse. The premise sounds like something out of fiction, but Alberdi used it to sneak us into a warm, caring reflection about growing old and out of society. You could rush to conclude the 40 years old filmmaker has a fixation on old age, but she stumbled upon the Góngora story. "I was not specifically looking for a story about people with Alzheimer's. I found them in a work-related event and was surprised by their relationship,” says Alberdi.
The director and Paulina Urrutia are in the US to promote the film as it nears opening in theaters. She is an accomplished actress with a long career onstage and screen. After sharing her life with Góngora for over 20 years, she did not bat an eye at letting the cameras inside her home, even at such a fraught moment. “Actually, it was not my choice. We met with Maite and he said he would gladly do the movie. All of us, his kids, friends, and myself, had to process it. The decision was not easy. Once we saw the movie, we understood why Augusto did not shy away from it."
Alberdi worked with a skeleton crew: just her, a cinematographer, and a soundman. Both of them worked with Góngora during his years in television, easing their introduction in the domestic sphere. “Little by little, we built our own relationship,” reminisces Alberdi. “Augusto and Paulina were both very generous, allowing us to enter their lives. Once the two were on board, everything was very open.”
Skeleton Crew: Alberdi and a small production team manage to blend in the domestic life of Góngora and Urrutia / Photo Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films.
Considering Urrutia’s background as an actress, you may wonder if the limits between performance and real-life existence smudged a little. She is quick to shut down that idea. “It was a process I was living through myself. It’s evident there is no possibility of performing,” says Paulina. “We just gave ourselves over to the process of recording life. It is something Augusto did all his life. That is why you have all that family video in the movie. It was his way of communicating with people. I always understood this was a documentary about him. The only thing I had to do was to live with him throughout this last stage of his life. Therefore, there is no acting. I am an actress, so the first thing I do is forget that I am in front of a camera. Augusto has his own relationship with the camera. He looks at it. We are never uncomfortable with it. We behave in a natural way, from two very different perspectives.”
The naturality of their interactions is disarming. We can only imagine the emotional impact Chilean audiences might experience watching the movie. Góngora showed them the darkest side of their history, making a record of the crimes of the Pinochet years. Afterward, he showcased how arts and culture flourished after democracy arrived. The one thing Góngora had left to give was his own self. Letting Alberdi capture his decline is an act of bravery, akin to defying military goons to show the starving children behind the “economic miracle” of the Pinochet years.
Love is the air: Góngora tags along to Urrutia's theater rehearsals in "The Eternal Memory" / Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films.
The movie follows a linear narrative path, except for brief flashbacks that put foreign audiences to date on the career of Góngora. That was a narrative imperative for Alberdi. “We had to assume that most people seeing the movie would not know who Augusto was. I could not take my knowledge as a departure point. I had to communicate who he was to people who did not know him without boring those who did not overwhelm them with a lot of information they already had. You have to give enough context without writing out the full history of Chile during a well-known historical moment. We just needed to give enough information to make the narrative understandable. We tested the movie exhaustively with foreign audiences to see how much they grasped and whether more info was necessary.”
When the movie begins, Paulina is able to combine work with the demands of caring for Augusto. We see him tagging along to rehearsals and the opening night of another show - an intimate play about victims of the dictatorship. Soon, the advance of the disease and the COVID pandemic confines them to their home. At one point, Paulina must assume the responsibility of filming. The crew cannot come in due to shutdown restrictions. Both foes, Alzheimer's and COVID, conspired to mark the end of shooting.
“I thought I wanted to film for many years,” says Alberdi. “The limit was figuring out when to film. It had to do with the ravages of the disease. I think the moment arrived when we did not feel comfortable. I felt it, too. There was this moment when Augusto said ‘I am not anymore.’ That day, right there, was the first time we felt we were asking him for things he could not do. We wanted him to communicate, and he could not. That was the end. It came naturally.”
Working independently allowed Alberdi to abide by her creativity. “I think the blessing of this movie was that we never had any pressure from any film fund or producer, nor deadlines to deliver rough or final cuts. We did it by ourselves, going to record with our own camera, which we eventually passed on to Paulina. I appreciated that freedom because we were not accountable to anybody. (Once COVID hit) We said, ‘Well, what do we do now? It would be a shame to lose everything we have done so far. But I think the two of us, without any expectation of the material, were not under pressure to finish a movie. We said, 'Let’s keep doing this register. Let’s keep recording'. I did not know if the material would work, so I was surprised watching what was coming in. When we decided to go on, it was mostly to keep registering rather than to finish a movie.”
Urrutia and Góngora share a luminous love story / Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films.
The finished movie is one of the most compelling and empathetic portrayals of living with Alzheimer's. “For me, it has been an absolute gift,” concludes Paulina. One might think this is a documentary about a person suffering from this illness that brings so much fear, loneliness, and isolation, but it is a rather luminous picture. It’s transformative. People come out of it full of hope, armed with a way to face this challenge in the most human, organic way possible. It’s not about a person with Alzheimer's but about people facing it as you would any other disease. We just go on living. That’s what makes the movie luminous.”
Augusto Góngora died on May 19, 2023. “The Eternal Memory” is a final act of generosity from an extraordinary man and his loving partner and caretaker. You do not have to be Chilean to be moved by this movie. Check out the video of our interview with Maite Alberdi and Paulina Urrutia.
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