Oscars: 3 Documentary Feature Contenders Explore Loneliness and Mortality Through Elderly Eyes

by Mia Galuppo

The protagonists in these shortlisted docs — 'The Mole Agent,' 'Dick Johnson Is Dead' and 'The Truffle Hunters' — may be getting up there in years, but they've got plenty of life to share.

There isn't a single talking head across the collective four and half hours of screen time among the films The Mole Agent, Dick Johnson Is Dead and The Truffle Hunters. The feature documentaries, among the 15 on the Oscar shortlist, all center on subjects over 80 years old and deftly avoid onscreen cliches about the elderly by letting the characters craft their own stories while living their colorful lives.

The Mole Agent director Maite Alberdi did not set out to make a documentary about an octogenarian. She originally intended to profile a private detective, but quickly discovered that his newly hired spy, an 83-year-old widower named Sergio Chamy, was a much more compelling subject. (The investigator's regular mole broke his hip, which led to Chamy being hired for the job.)

The movie, which is also shortlisted for the Oscar for international feature for Chile, follows Chamy as he investigates possible signs of theft and abuse inside a Chilean nursing home. To get her cameras inside, Alberdi told the facility's administrators that she wanted to make an observational documentary about the inner workings of the home over a four-month period. She received signed releases from the owners and residents, and timed the start of her production with Chamy's arranged move-in date. "I felt less guilty about my lie because I thought I was going to make a denounce[ment] of this bad place," says Alberdi. But she soon realized that the residents, who include a diverse array of individuals, from poetry lovers to amateur thieves, were not suffering from abuse but rather from the loneliness and isolation that is common among the elderly, yet is not often seen onscreen in earnest.

There were many times while filming The Mole Agent that Alberdi feared Chamy would be discovered as he took not-so-subtle notes while pacing the halls or when he would speak to his boss about the investigation on a speakerphone in common areas. But Chamy was never discovered, leaving the director with the task of coming clean to the nursing home's owners and employees about the real nature of the film. She decided the best place to do so would be at the film's first screening. It turned out they weren't angry about the deceit, but grateful for an accurate portrayal of their workplace.

"As a culture in Latin America, we are in a transition," says Alberdi, who explains that until recently, it was common in Chile that families cared for the elderly at home. But as people move into smaller housing in cities, older adults have been moved out of family homes and into nursing care facilities. "We never establish a bridge between the previous life the [elderly] had and the retirement home," says the filmmaker, who notes that during her time in the nursing home, in-person visits and phone calls were nonexistent.

In contrast to this is Dick Johnson Is Dead — an intimate look at the relationship between the eponymous older adult and his family caregiver, in this case the veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. The younger Johnson had helped care for her mother during her battle with dementia, and when her father's diagnosis came, she thought, "I can't go through another bout of dementia, dealing with it in a serious way." This is when she and her dad decided the best way to cope with his eventual death would be to kill him, time and again, onscreen. During Dick Johnson, the titular character meets his end via a set of stairs, a falling air conditioner and renegade lumber. Filmmaker Johnson sees her movie as being akin to Harold and Maude or Monty Python, where something that's traditionally seen as sacred is shown in an irreverent way.

"Getting this film financed gave me a way to pay myself to stay home and be with my dad," says Johnson. "It's kind of mind-blowing when one finds oneself in the position of being a caregiver, how much it demands, and no one has prepared you for it. I had no idea how demanding this is, and hallucinatory and funny and devastating." It was these dichotomies that come with aging, death and caregiving that Johnson hoped to capture in her feature, the production of which positioned her in conflicting roles as caretaker and filmmaker. She says, "I was challenging my own ethics every step of the way."

Johnson was able to attend the Sundance Film Festival screening of the doc with her father, who is now in a dementia care facility, where the movie has been screened on multiple occasions for him and the other residents. The younger Johnson shares: "One of the caregivers said to me, 'I took it to show it to my husband and now he understands a little bit of what I'm dealing with.' " As for the filmmaker, she now views the film as a time capsule, capturing her and her father in a specific moment in time, saying, "This movie is alive for me and it will change every time I see it."

And as Netflix's Dick Johnson is an encompassing exploration of loss, Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck's The Truffle Hunters is a look at a group of 80-year-old Italian men's staunch refusal to let go of a beloved tradition — foraging for rare white Alba truffles.

The production shot over three years, where full days would slink by without a single shot being captured. Says Kershaw, "A lot of that time was spent observing their lives, participating in their lives, and trying to discover this fountain of youth that they had, which was really just living in a way that was connected." The filmmakers, with a reverence toward authenticity, chose to follow the lead of their subjects — literally. Kershaw and Dweck often found themselves trailing an 89-year-old through the thick forests of northern Italy, struggling to keep up. Says Dweck, "They walk 15 to 20 kilometers a night, with no lights, in the mud, in the cold, and do it every night for three and a half months straight."

The directors quickly understood that their documentary, released by Sony Pictures Classics, would be made on its subjects' terms. One such example was a technology-averse Angelo Gagliardi, a bombastic personality who retired from truffle hunting on moral grounds. The filmmakers went to great lengths to ensure that he was in the film. This required calling a friend who then had to make a 40-mile trek to Angelo's home to communicate the request to shoot. While at Angelo's filming, Dweck​ noticed a landline phone that was unplugged from the wall. He recalls: "We said, 'Angelo, does this phone work?' He says, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, why don't you plug it in?' He goes, 'Well, if you tell me when you're going to call, I'll plug in the phone.' " It was a type of logic that they could not argue with, says Dweck. "[It] makes a lot of sense, actually."

Dweck and Kershaw had a trip booked to return to Piedmont to screen the film for its stars, but the travels were sidelined by COVID-19. The plan is still to show the movie in a nearby town that houses a 1930s-era multiplex. For several of their subjects, this will be their first trip to the cinema, ever. Says Dweck with a laugh, "Can you imagine grandkids asking, 'What was the first movie you saw?' And the answer: 'Well, I starred in it.' "

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

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