The Eternal Memory finds joy in an unexpected place

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Eternal Memory
On Demand

There’s nothing uplifting about Alzheimer’s disease, at least the way it’s usually presented. The day-to-day is depicted as a constant crisis and the inevitable ending treated as a relief.

The Chilean documentary The Eternal Memory brings texture to what we know about the disease. The opening scene features a wife tenderly reintroducing herself to her very amused husband, who’s struggling to remember her. There’s a sweetness that’s very unusual for films on this topic.

The subjects are actress-turned-politician Paulina Urrutia and journalist Augusto Góngora, a long-married couple dealing with the latter’s early on-set Alzheimer’s. Over eight years Paulina tried her best to accompany Augusto on this journey and discovered there was joy even in the darkest of circumstances. Góngora died earlier this year, after the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the World Cinema Grand Jury prize.

The Eternal Memory was directed by Maite Alberdi, who previously scored an Academy Award nomination for The Mole Agent (2021), a hilarious doc about an undercover senior citizen at a retirement home investigating elder abuse.

Memory was a recurring issue for Augusto Góngora even before he developed Alzheimer’s. In the ’80s, Góngora chronicled crimes and abuses Pinochet’s regime would rather have kept hidden. At the time, his reports circulated on videotape among the junta’s opponents. Today they serve as testimony of a dynamic and empathetic individual who wanted to create a historic memory for a country submerged in darkness.

I met both subjects: Paulina at university — I was a freshman at Journalism school, she was a senior majoring in Acting — and Augusto during my early days as a critic. In my limited interactions with them, Paulina was guarded (she was fresh out a popular series and wasn’t enjoying the fame) and Augusto, outgoing and open (we had drinks at a film festival). Those qualities appear in The Eternal Memory.

Maite Alberdi chronicled Paulina and Augusto’s life three days a month for four years. As some sequences attest, her access was unlimited. I had the chance to interview her last August, shortly after the death of Augusto. For Alberdi, The Eternal Memory isn’t about Alzheimer’s, but about love.

How did your approach to making this doc change over time?

Originally, I wanted to tell their love story after witnessing how Paulina had integrated Augusto into other aspects of her life. I’ve filmed many people with Alzheimer’s, and they’re often segregated. Slowly, Augusto himself made me realize we needed to incorporate his and Paulina’s past because their relationship was determined by it.

It’s often said documentary filmmakers affect the action they’re registering whether they like it or not. How do you reduce your impact?

I try to become invisible. I work with a very small team, three people at most and no deadlines. We work in silence and create a calm, relaxed environment, like accompanying the subjects. If you’re in a rush for getting the right material, you start pressuring or asking for things. The key is time.

The film is one hour, 25 minutes long and very tight. Is there any material you would have liked to include but ended up in the cutting floor?

I’ve always been very sure of the scenes I leave in a film. Everything that’s key the story, everything that touched me is there. My movies are an exercise in sharing: I’m telling the audience everything that moved me.

Did you have a hard time identifying the end point?

Initially I was having difficulties imagining what the ending would be, but once I started filming it became very clear. Throughout the movie, Augusto is a person aware of his condition but with enough of an identity. This ended the moment he said, “I’m not me”. We finished filming then and there.

No money? No problem

Despite her Oscar nomination two years ago and the fact her subjects were widely popular in Chile, Maite Alberdi had to make The Eternal Memory without a financial backer. Festival circuit success changed that and now the film appears in multiple best-of-the-year lists, including the New York Times.

Growing up in Chile, documentary filmmaking wasn’t a thing one would gravitate towards. How did you end up specializing in docs?

Nicholas Philibert and Alan Berliner’s docs truly affected me. I also felt comfortable making them, being allowed inside someone’s home and observing them. I know of directors that would rather die and prefer to build their own worlds, but that doesn’t interest me.

How hard is for you to leave the subjects you’ve been working with?

It’s a bit like graduating from high school. Your daily routine is gone and it’s painful. At the same time, these are relationships for life. Those people continue to exist as well as the love you have for them.

If you had $10,000 extra to spend in The Eternal Memory, how would you have used it?

I don’t think I would have needed it. This is a movie made with no budget. We used my camera. Perhaps because we had no money, we were free of time constrains. That independence fueled our creativity.

Was Augusto able to watch the film?

No, by the time we finished it, he was too deteriorated. Paulina has and she has helped me promote the movie. ■