At times you have to remind yourself that you are watching a documentary and not actors in a fictional drama. I’m talking about The Mole Agent, one of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature in this year’s Academy Awards competition. What starts as film noir with a humorous slant evolves into a film essay on aging and loneliness.
Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi originally set out to document the work being done by private investigator Romulo Aitkin. The narrative became quite different, thanks to Romulo’s mole, Sergio Chamy. The charming, 83-year-old widower was hired to be the inside man to follow a case at a retirement home. Once on the inside, we see life from Sergio’s perspective.
The Mole Agent is a touching film about humanity, deftly told without the benefit of an all-knowing narrator or on-camera interviews. The thread that binds the film is often Sergio’s phoned reports to Romulo, but the film’s approach is largely cinema verite. Building that structure fell to Carolina Siraqyan, a Chile-based editor, whose main experience has been cutting short-form projects and commercials. I recently connected with Carolina over Zoom to discuss the post behind this Oscar contender.
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Please tell me how you got the chance to edit this film.
I met Maite years ago while giving a presentation about editing trailers for documentaries, which is a speciality of mine. She was finishing the The Grown-Ups and I’m Not From Here, a short documentary film. I ended up doing the trailers for both and we connected. She shared that she was developing The Mole Agent. I loved the mixture of film noir and observational documentary, so I asked to work on the film and ended up cutting it.
Did her original idea start with the current premise of the film or was the concept broader at that point?
Maite wanted to do a documentary about the workings of a private detective agency, since detectives are often only represented in fiction. She worked with Romulo for a few months and realized that investigations into retirement homes are quite common. She loved the idea for the film and started focusing on that aspect.
Romulo already had a mole that he used inside the homes on these cases, but the mole broke his hip. So Romulo placed a newspaper want ad for someone in his 80s who could work as his new mole on this case. A number of credible older men applied. Out of those applicants, Sergio was hired and turned out to be perfect for the film. He entered into the retirement home after some initial training, including how to discretely communicate with Romulo and how to use the spy cameras.
How was the director able to convince the home and the residents to be in the film?
The film crew had arrived a couple of weeks before Sergio. It was explained that they were doing a film on old age and would be focusing on any new residents in the home. So, the existing residents were already comfortable with the presence of the cameras before he arrived. Maite was very empathetic about where to place cameras so that they wouldn’t bother residents or interfere with what the staff was doing, even if that might not be the best location aesthetically.
Maite is very popular here. She’s written and directed a number of films about social issues and her point-of-view is very humble and very respectful. This is a good retirement home with nothing to hide, so both the staff and the residents were OK with filming. But to be clear, only people who consented appear in the film.
I understand that there were 300 hours of raw footage filmed for this documentary. How did you approach that?
The crew filmed for over three months. It’s actually more that 300 hours of footage, because of the spy cameras. Probably as much as 50 hours more. I couldn’t use a lot of that spy camera material, because Sergio would accidentally press record instead of pressing stop. The camera was in his pocket all the time, so I might have black for 20 minutes. [laugh]
I starting on the project in January  after it had been shot and the camera footage merged with the sound files. The native footage was shot with Sony cameras in their MXF format. The spy cameras generated H.264 files. To keep everything smooth, I was working with proxy files.
Essentially I started from zero on the edit. It took me two months to categorize the footage. I have an assistant, but I wanted to watch all of the material first. I like to add markers while I’m watching and then add text to those markers as I react to that footage. The first impression is very important for me.
We had a big magnetic blackboard and I placed magnetic cards on the wall for each of the different situations that I had edited. Then Maite came during the middle of March and we worked together like playing Tetris to structure the film. After that we shifted to Amsterdam for two months to work in a very focused way in order to refine the film’s structure. The first edition was completed in November and the final mix and color correction was done in December.
Did you have a particular method to create the structure of this documentary?
I feel that every film is different and you have to think a lot about how you are going to face each movie. In this film I had two certainties, the beginning – Romulo training Sergio – and the ending – what Sergio’s thoughts were. The rest is all emotion. That’s the spine. I have to analyze the emotion to converge to the conflict. First, there’s the humor and then the evolution to the sadness and loneliness. That’s how I approached the material – by the emotion.
I color-coded the magnetic cards for different emotions. For example, pink was for the funny scenes. When Maite was there, the cards provided the big picture showing all the situations. We could look and decide if a certain order worked or not.
What sort of changes to the film came out of the review stage?
This is a very international film with co-producers in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Chile. We would share cuts with them to get helpful feedback. It let us make the movie more universal, because we had the input of many professionals from different parts of the world.
When we arrived in Amsterdam the first cut of the film was about three hours long. Originally the first part was 30 minutes long and that was cut down to 10 minutes. When we watched the longer cut, we felt that we were losing interest in the investigation; however, the relationship that Sergio was establishing with the women was wonderful. All the women are in love with him. It starts like film noir, but with humor. So we focused on the relationships and edited the investigation parts into shorter humorous segments that were interspersed throughout the film.
The reality was incredible and definitely nothing was scripted. But some of the co-producers commented that various scenes in the film didn’t feel real to them. So, we considered those opinions as we were tightening the film.
You edited this film with Adobe Premiere Pro. How do you like using it and why was it the right tool for this film?
I started on film with Moviola and then edited on U-matic, which I hated. I moved to Avid, because it was the first application we had. Then I moved to Final Cut Pro; but after FCP7 died, I switched to Premiere Pro. I love it and am very comfortable with how the timeline works. The program leaves you a lot of freedom as to how and where you put your material. You have control – none of that magnetic stuff that forces you to do something by default.
Premiere Pro was great for this documentary. If a program shuts down unexpectedly, it’s very frustrating, because the creative process stops. I didn’t have any problems even though everything was in one, large project. I did occasionally clean up the project to get rid of stuff I wasn’t using, so it wasn’t too heavy. But Premiere allowed me to work very fluidly, which is crucial.
You completed the The Mole Agent at the end of 2019. That’s prior to the “work from home” remote editing reality that most of the world has lived through during this past year. What would be different if you had worked on the film a year later?
The Mole Agent was completed in time for Sundance in January of 2020. Fortunately we were able to work without lockdowns. I’ve worked a lot remotely during this past year and it’s difficult. You get accustomed to it, but there is something missing. You don’t get the same feeling looking through a [web] camera as being together in the room. Something in the creative communication is lost in the technology. If the movie had been edited like this [communicating through Zoom] – and considering the mood during the lockdowns and how that affects your perception of the material – then it really would be a different film.
Any final thoughts about your experience editing this film?
I had previously worked sporadically on films, but have spent most of my career in the advertising industry. A few years ago I decided that I wanted to work full-time on long-form films. Then this project came to me. So I was very open during the process to all of the notes and comments. I understood the process, of course, but because I had worked so much in advertising, I now had to put this new information into practice. I learned a lot!
The Mole Agent is a very touching film. It’s different – very innovative. It’s an incredible movie for people who have seen the film. It affects the conscience and they take action. I feel very glad to have worked on this film.
©2021 Oliver Peters