Journalist and documentarian Augusto Góngora was a force to be reckoned with at the height of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
He was the editor-in-chief of Teleanálisis, an underground news organization that covered news that the official pro-Pinochet media refused to cover. Taking full advantage of video’s portability and affordability, Góngora and his team recorded and documented the abuses of Pinochet’s regime: the assassination of journalists and opponents, the street protests during Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit, and the plebiscite that put an end to the dictatorship. In 1993, he took charge of Televisión Nacional de Chile’s cultural programming, producing and hosting dozens of programs and interviews featuring a who’s who of Chilean culture: filmmakers like Raúl Ruiz, writers, actors, and so on.
Then, in 2014, he publicly revealed that he had been diagnosed with that silent killer known as Alzheimer’s. A man who had fought to preserve Chile’s memory —and who had even collaborated on a book titled Chile: la memoria prohibida (Chile: The Forgotten Memory)— had fallen prey to a disease that slowly and cruelly gnaws away at the memory until it leaves nothing but a shell of a person behind.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best World Cinema Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and shot over the course of four years, Maite Alberdi’s The Eternal Memory opens with a blurry shot of Góngora’s wife Paulina Urrutia, an actress and former minister of culture under President Michelle Bachelet, as she wakes her ailing husband with entreaties. “Who are you?” he asks.
“I am here to remind you who Augusto Góngora was,” she replies.
Alberdi proceeds to discreetly document Paulina’s battle in keeping what’s left of her husband’s mind active.
Hers is not a lonely fight, however, as Augusto is an equal partner in this struggle—after all, they lived together for 20 years until they finally married two years after he made his diagnosis public. They take long walks as she gently prods him with questions designed to make him remember specific facts and moments of their lives together. She takes him to her rehearsals for a play about memory where he sits on stage, staring, smiling, trying to make sense of what’s happening around him. The camera even catches him dancing on stage at one point.
This is a man who, at the most, is not willing to go down without a fight—or at the least, without a smile. Even with his failing memory, he knows he is in love with Paulina. There is a playfulness to her exchanges that more than makes up for the sadness we feel as we witness his brilliant intellect decay. When she tells him “This is your house,” he responds with smile “Our house, not yours.”
Alberdi and editor Carolina Siraqyan smartly weave newsreels and clips from Augusto’s television and film work into the main story, as well as home footage of the couple as their relationship evolved. The obvious intention here is to contrast a far more youthful and ebullient Augusto with the older one, in order to put into relief what the world will lose once his memory is completely gone. But, most important, the images also underscore the couple’s never-ending love for each other, giving more poignancy to the contemporary scenes. I couldn’t help but wish to see more of those original newsreels and interviews, as Augusto comes out a compelling, charismatic and insightful interviewer, a man from whom a lot of us in the media could learn a thing or two about the art of interviewing.
COVID eventually rears its ugly head, and the couple is forced into isolation. Paulina takes over the shooting of the documentary, which explains why that opening shot is out of focus. Denied contact with friends and family, which he needs to keep his brain cells active, Augusto’s mental decline accelerates.
The camera scans a shelf full of history books—books that he will never be able to read again. “My books mean so much to me,” he cries at one point while holding several in his hands. We see the enormous toll this takes on Paulina, as well as the strength she pulls from God knows where to take care of her husband.
To some degree, The Eternal Memory also works as a metaphor for the risks we face if we lose our collective historical memory. One could contrast Paulina’s efforts to keep Augusto intellectually active, to remind him of who he is and what the work he has done, with the efforts of many Chileans —and Argentinians or, for that matter, the survivors of any dictatorship— to keep alive the names of those who were so violently dispatched by the armed forces and intelligence services of their country and hold the culprits of such violent repression responsible for their actions. “Never forget” may be a phrase commonly used by survivors of dictatorships, but it could also apply to those nations on the brink of falling under the spell of autocracies while turning a blind eye to history.
Augusto died on May 19 at age 71, months after the film’s premiere. And though he gradually lost his memory before ultimately losing his life to this awful disease, his legacy still lives on in his documentaries and books and in Paulina’s efforts to keep it alive.
The Eternal Memory now stands, in the same way his documentaries do, as a poignant reminder of the power of and need for memory. It is also a record of one brave couple that courageously faced both a dictatorship and then a terrible disease—and is the most moving love story you’ll see on any screen this year.
Alejandro A. Riera is a film critic and the media coordinator for several music and film festivals in Chicago where he lives. He has been writing about film and television since 1993, when he joined the team of ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly. He is a member and treasurer of the Chicago Film Critics Association and a rabid defender of Latin American cinema. Twitter: @AlejandroARiera