It’s a surreal experience to feel like you’re part of someone else’s love story. That’s precisely why, since it first started screening at 2023’s Sundance Film Festival, audiences have reacted so viscerally to the documentary The Eternal Memory. As in: They cry. A lot.

Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi’s sensational film, which, after landing on many Top 10 lists, is currently shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar, is unlike any documentary in its intense, eye-opening intimacy.

Over the course of several years, Alberdi essentially embedded herself—and her camera—in the relationship of Augusto Góngora and Paulina Urrutia. He was one of Chile’s most prominent journalists and TV personalities. She was an actress who served as Minister of Culture and the Arts. They were married for 23 years when Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The Eternal Memory follows them as Paulina cares for Augusto as his illness deteriorates and Augusto clings onto his identity through his last days—a profound coda to his life’s work of ensuring the atrocities of Pinochet’s regime are not forgotten.

A searing record of the pain of loss and the permanence of love, it’s a film that completely recontextualizes how we view the fading of memory and the experience of romance and partnership as one faces the end of their life. As The Daily Beast’s Obsessed’s Nick Schager wrote in his review, the film is “not simply a record of pain and sorrow, given that it doubles as a portrait of true love in all its unbreakable, indefatigable glory. It’s a testament to the vitality and fragility of memory that itself serves as an act of preservation—of a prized past, a fraught present and an everlasting devotion.”

We spoke with Alberdi late last year at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival about the process of making a film this groundbreakingly intimate. Now that The Eternal Memory is contending for an Oscar nomination, here’s our conversation.

How has the experience of this past year been for you? Filmmakers go on this festival journey traveling with their project often, but they’re not always talking about something that’s so intimate and personal that people react so emotionally and viscerally to.

To protect myself, I try not to see the film, because every time I see it, I get very emotional. I try not to be in the screening room. It has been very amazing to see how the emotions work everywhere. For me and for Paulina, who has been traveling a lot with me, it’s been a special way to go through mourning. She said when someone that you love passed away, everyone avoids speaking about it to you. And she really wants to speak about it and share it. I think that the film has been, obviously for her but also for me, a way to feel another way of mourning, when you’’e celebrating life and sharing and speaking.

That’s interesting, because one of the things that I really took away from the movie is how important it is not to run away from pain and hardship, but actually to embrace it and try to find the beauty and positivity in it. It sounds like that’s what you and Paulina are going through right now.

We are doing that. We are trying to understand that through traveling with the film. At the same time, the film is stuck in a way. I was engaged with [Paulina and Augusto] because I realized that they looked at their situation as a challenge and not a tragedy. They also tried to be in society, before COVID, to not hide and to speak about it. They were very open about the pain, and that made it easier.

Their experience as he was losing his battle with Alzheimer’s is something that people don’t share publicly. It is something that we don’t witness unless you are going through that with your own loved ones. What made you suspect or think that revealing this relationship and what they were going through would be something that could be of public value?

It was exactly that. He was the director of the public television network and had a very visible job. He decided to do an open interview and tell all of the country that he has Alzheimer’s. And he quit. A few months later, I was teaching in a university where Paulina worked. I saw her and her work with him. All the people that worked there helped her to take care of him. That was unbelievable for me, because I saw a couple in love and having nice moments in a context that could be hard.

I would imagine being really struck by that.

In my previous films, I focused a lot on how people are isolated when they have dementia or get old. This was completely the opposite. It was the decision to put in society someone that probably would have been isolated. That decision blew my mind. From the beginning, I told them I wanted to make a love story. Paulina was like, “There is no love story here.” Then when she saw the film for the first time, she told me, “You were right, I have a love story.” It was a way to face it that was very special.

Photograph of Maite Alberdi

Maite Alberdi attends the dinner party for the candidates of the Goya Cinema Awards.

Aldara Zarraoa/Getty Images

It’s interesting that she didn’t think that she had a love story until she saw that film. Because I really do think that we’re so accustomed, when we do see stories about this disease, for it to be so bleak. And it is so hard to watch. Was there a point when you were with them and making this film that you realized that there were the elements of uplift and love and the positive things that we don’t ever get to see in stories like this?

I started realizing this was a special thing because, when you’re a documentary filmmaker, usually when there are terrible moments happening with the characters, you feel pain. But all of the days were filled with happiness and were joyful. I never felt like, “I don’t want to be here.” That energy was very clear. That was very special for me. And it was a film that was very difficult for me to get financed, because I was like, “It’s a love story.” People would be like, “What else?” I’m like, no that is it. But you have to see them and feel it. It was very difficult to explain it.

I know there are a lot of filmmakers who think it’s very important to have remove and distance and objectivity from subjects that they’re documenting. I imagine that was hard, if not impossible with this project. Could you talk about that experience of being so close to them?

I never get distance from my characters. At the start of this, I said I want to be with them and I want to have a relationship with them. Because I’m going to shoot for so many years, and I knew from the beginning that I need to be really comfortable there. For me, it’s a long term relationship. So I cannot have distance, because they became part of my life. So it’s relationships that you build, you construct. In this case, I was there for five years. So of course, at the beginning, there was more distance. But then I felt like part of the house, part of the family.

I think we’re used to thinking one way about memory loss. How painful that can be. By watching them, you see that love transcends memory. I think that’s a really beautiful idea.

That is the eternal memory. I learned during the film that it’s not only love, it’s also emotion. That emotional memory is always there. He cannot remember days. He cannot remember how many years they have been together. But if she would say to him, “Did we have kids together?” He would say, “No, because you didn’t want that.” And it’s true, and that was his pain. So he remembered perfectly his pain, but not information. But that pain is there and the love of Paulina is there. So there is an emotional memory that continues when you lose all the information. So for me, it’s about talking about what is permanent and not about what you forget. Love and pain is permanent in your body. So for me, that is the big lesson about memory with him.

It is really remarkable how much parallel there is between his work and that writing that he did about memory and what the film is about.

It’s so consequential to everything. In his book, in his newscasts, in the papers he wrote, he used the word memory a lot.

So many people are afraid of getting older because they’re afraid of what will happen to them and to their relationships. But it is really remarkable to see through them that that scary part of life, the end of life, can also be really romantic. That was also a revelation to me: How romantic that period of loss and sorrow could be.

He passed away a year after the last scene in the film. But until the end, I felt that they were in love and I felt the romance. It was not heartbreaking for me to shoot it, but in the editing, it was heartbreaking for me to see. When I put the material up from 25 years ago and then the material from today, you see that they look at each other in the same way. I was like, “I cannot believe it.” It’s real. It happened through the years. They took care of each other at the end because they took care of each other all those years. That is probably what love is about. I get emotional with the film not because of the disease. It’s because it makes us question our relationships and what our expectations of love are.

Do you think that the period of COVID lockdown brought an extra layer of emotion to the film? That was a time where so many people were grappling with grief and the fear of loss.

COVID completely changed their situation and completely changed the story. My point of view of the film was completely one about a couple that was in society. The theater scene, for example, was the kind of thing that I was looking forward to having, like him in the world and at parties. That was my idea of the film: to see someone with dementia in society. The lockdown was a year and a half, and completely broke my idea of that.

How did it affect them?

It was very terrible for him. Because he was an example of a patient that was in society, his deterioration went really slow because he was in the streets all day. So he got worse in the span of one month in lockdown than he did in a year before. It was years of deterioration in months. So that accelerated his illness not because he didn’t have his therapy. He had it. It was because he was not in society. So that, for me, changed completely the understanding of how you have to deal with dementia. Life completely changed for them, and they never went out again, because the deterioration was so fast.


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