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Love stronger than illness in the Oscar-nominated documentary Eternal Memory

As a journalist, Augusto Góngora fought to describe the violence of the military dictatorship in Chile.

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Love stronger than illness in the Oscar-nominated documentary Eternal Memory

As a journalist, Augusto Góngora fought to describe the violence of the military dictatorship in Chile. But it was his fight against his fading memory, shared with his wife, that made him the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, Eternal Memory.

Directed by Chilean Maite Alberdi, it depicts the progression of Alzheimer's disease within a couple who strive day after day to keep the flame of their love intact, as their country tries not to forget the fractures of the pass.

“The film has become a metaphor for the loss of memory of an entire country, through what happens to Góngora,” Maite Alberdi, 40, explains to AFP. “It's also an important reminder that when you lose your rational memory, there's an emotional memory that takes over. And this historical charge remains even if your memory fades.”

The film, nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category, chronicles five years of the daily life of Augusto Góngora and his wife Paulina Urrutia, an actress and former Minister of Culture who became his caregiver.

“I saw a very particular way of talking about Alzheimer's through love: the disease is not seen as a tragedy but as a context,” explained the director. “It wasn’t too difficult to film because it’s a great lesson in love,” underlines Maite Alberdi, already nominated for the Oscars in 2021 for a documentary, The Mole Agent, on the loneliness of seniors.

On March 10 in Los Angeles, she will compete for the Best Documentary Oscar with 20 Days in Mariupol, To Kill a Tiger, Bobi Wine: The People's President and Olfa's Daughters.

Member of an underground media during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Augusto Góngora then wrote a book on the first years of this dark episode in Chilean history: Chile: La Memoria Prohibida (Chile: The Forbidden Memory) then worked on television after the end of the dictatorship in 1990.

He who spent years entering people's homes to be able to tell their stories, he opened his own door to Maite Alberdi, exposing his intimacy in a moment of vulnerability. “He knew he wanted to tell the story of his fragility,” says the director. He and his wife “threw themselves headlong” into this project, which intersperses scenes from their daily lives marked by Alzheimer's with archive images of their lives before.

In one of them, Paulina Urrutia reads to her husband a dedication that he had written for her in a copy of his book, when they were first dating. The words from then have a particular resonance today: "Without memory, we do not know who we are... Without memory, no identity."

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the director, without much hope for the result, entrusted a camera to the couple so that they could continue their chronicle. The images thus captured “had such depth” that this problem ended up becoming a blessing, she assures us today.

According to Maite Alberdi, the decision to interrupt filming was self-imposed. “There is a scene in the film where he (Góngora) confides: ‘I am no longer here’,” she says. “It’s the first time in five years that I’ve felt him uncomfortable with himself. This moment when he saw himself losing his identity, that was the limit for me.”

Augusto Góngora died at the age of 71 in May 2023, four months after The Eternal Memory premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where his story won the top prize for documentaries.

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