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Pure Unknown (Sconosciuti Puri)

A forensic scientist works hard in order to identify migrant corpses and offer the dead people and their families some closure and dignity - from the the Italian Doc Season at Bertha DocHouse on January 27th and 28th

Dr. Cristina Cattaneo has a difficult job, that of identifying the nameless cadavers found in Milan, many of whom have no belongings, no marks, and are in an unrecognisable state of decay. The vast majority of these cadavers, which Cattaneo labels ‘pure unknown’, belong to migrants and refugees, often dead before they reach the shores of Italy.

Pure Unknown documents Cattaneo’s attempts to identify the growing number of migrant corpses showing up in Milan and further afield, and what makes it so compelling is not just the social urgency of its topic, but the clear interest it takes in Cattaneo’s job. Much of the documentary is dedicated simply to showing the audience how one might go about identifying a corpse with few clues, and the results are utterly gripping. Where appearance cannot be used, things such as hairlines, teeth, pacemakers, and fingerprints must be relied upon. Occasionally, these cadavers might be found with water-damaged photos or mobile phones broken beyond repair. Seeing how Cattaneo pieces together these clues to identify the bodies that find their way into her laboratory is fascinating, but knowing the details of her work also helps us to understand why so many bodies remain unidentified.

The problem goes far beyond a lack of identifying information. As we watch Cattaneo contact institution after institution it becomes clear that the information is often out there, but it is not being shared. To watch Cattaneo at work is to watch the international community continually pass the buck in terms of responsibility for these corpses. Every day her inbox is filled with funding rejections and refusals to share information. As Cattaneo explains, “money doesn’t grow on trees, especially for these people.” Pure Uknown follows her as she attempts to change this state of affairs and push the EU to take responsibility for the identification of bodies and mandate the sharing of information across borders. It should be a no-brainer, but nothing to date has changed.

Interspersed amongst all of Cattaneo’s meetings, emails, and lab work is news footage documenting different areas of the migrant crisis. Italians interviewed express casually racist, anti-immigration views and complain about having to take in refugees. On the other end of the spectrum, the family members of missing migrants send out pleas for information about their loved ones, some of whom have inevitably ended up among the pure unknown. The documentary does not need to tell us what to take away from this. Merely by situating this footage beside Cattaneo’s work, our responsibility to migrants and refugees both living and dead is made evident.

In a particularly moving portion of Pure Unknown, we are introduced to an Albanian woman whose sister, Mbaresa, went missing over 20 years earlier in 1995. New advances in forensics have allowed Cattaneo to identify Mbaresa after all these years and to finally bring closure to her family. The reaction of Mbaresa’s sister is incredibly affecting, so much so that it almost feels wrong to be privy to it. It certainly drives the point home, though: no matter how long ago a family member went missing, those ties are never severed and moving on is impossible without closure. Knowing how many bodies come through Cattaneo’s lab, it is sobering to think how many families are trapped in this state of limbo, not knowing whether to hope or grieve.

Thisis a slow, understated documentary that is nevertheless very effective. The heartbreak and loss that thousands of families go through, the indignity that so many vulnerable people suffer in death – how much of it could be avoided if the international community would simply take some responsibility? It’s a deeply frustrating watch because of how easily some of these problems could be solved, but it leaves room for optimism too. These problems can be solved, and the more people aware of what’s happening, the more likely a solution becomes.

Pure Unknown shows at the Italian Doc Season at Bertha DocHouse on January 27th and 28th.


By Isy Santini - 20-01-2024

Isy is currently a Master’s student at the University of Edinburgh and the Film & TV editor of The Student. As well as editing, she writes weekly articles ranging from reviews to retrospectives ...

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