The alternative film review
The Mole Agent (El agente topo)
directed and written by Maite Alberdi
Sergio Chamy is a small man with large glasses and a big heart. For three months he has been a widower and, although he has three children and five grandchildren living nearby, he’s struggling. He needs something. Then he sees a newspaper ad offering temporary employment to someone aged 80 or older. He follows it up – a detective agency wants a mole, someone to go undercover, to live in a care home and to check that the mother of a client is being properly cared for.
Sergio is an unlikely secret agent and struggles with the technology, such as making a call on a mobile phone and using it to film. He has a camera hidden inside his glasses, but he drops and breaks them. Even so, once placed inside the ‘objective’ as a resident of the care home, he’s pretty good – as we see, since the care home has agreed the filmmakers can film there, ostensibly for a documentary about life in care homes in Chile.
The early jauntiness, the James Bond parody with John Barry-style score, Sergio’s identification of the ‘target’ and recording of her living conditions, give way to something else. He connects with people there. A gentle bright-eyed woman, losing her memory. An octogenarian who thinks her long-dead mother is alive but doesn’t ever visit her. A poet who declaims her own passionate verse about life and ageing. From an unlikely premise, director Alberdi has cleverly, respectfully put together a tender film about loneliness, loss of purpose and our need for connection with others.
directed and co-written by Rob Lemkin
This doc’s great strength is its revelation of a little-known episode in Europe’s colonization of Africa. In 1898, a French military column set out from Dakar, Senegal, with the brief ‘to place under French control the area between the River Niger and Lake Chad’. It led to its co-option into French West Africa, bordering British-ruled Nigeria. But, in villages along the way, the column massacred thousands of people.
Along what is now a tarmacked stretch of Niger’s Route Nationale, the filmmakers, 120 years on, follow the expedition’s route. Their translator-guides are taken aback by people’s detailed knowledge of what had happened and where, the passions aroused, the raw anger and distress. We see historical black-and-white stills of brutality by contemporary Belgian, German and British colonists. We hear accounts of atrocities by expedition members, held in French archives. The cruelty and depravity are jolting. The film’s co-writer and presenter, Femi Nylander, who is British-born of Nigerian parentage, is stunned.
Yet the focus on Nylander and on the psychology of imperialism and racism, depicting the expedition leader as a prototype Kurtz, from Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, is limiting and eurocentric. There is nothing about the wider history of the area, the broader politics and economics of how money and power divide and rule globally. Then, and now. The expedition, with hardly more than a dozen European officers and soldiers, had Africans do the dirty work. Today Chad and Niger are, from UN figures, the world’s poorest states. Yet, somehow, one of the few stretches of tarmacked road in Chad runs from the airport to the French-backed president’s palace.