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Right to a Name: Valentina Cicogna, Mattia Colombo, and Protagonist Cristina Cattaneo Discuss ‘Pure Unknown’

By Vladan Petković

Still image from 'Pure Unknown,' depicting a pair of gloved hands cradling and gently wiping the hand of someone who is deceased.

The new documentary by Italian directors Valentina Cicogna and Mattia Colombo, Pure Unknown, has its North American premiere at Hot Docs this week after bowing at Visions du Réel in Nyon. The co-directors follow Dr. Cristina Cattaneo, a forensic pathologist and anthropologist, founder, and director of LABANOF, the Laboratory of Anthropology and Forensic Odontology at the University of Milan. 

Among many other things in her multi-hyphenate career, Cattaneo works on identifying dead bodies of missing and unclaimed persons, who are usually people from the margins. With the influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, she has to fight for their right to a name, which Italian and other European governments are clearly not interested in. Cattaneo is lobbying for a pan-European database where missing people could be cross-referenced between different countries, which is not expensive or difficult to do, but there seems to be no political will for it. 

Cattaneo keeps trying to get the attention and funding from various European organizations, sending out innumerable emails and speaking to the European Parliament while more bodies wash up on Italy's shores. The last scenes of Pure Unknown occur in 2020 when an Albanian woman comes looking for her sister, who has been missing since the mid-1990s. LABANOF is able to identify the missing woman thanks to DNA, which wasn't possible when she initially disappeared. This experience helps Cattaneo understand that the right approach is to focus on the effect that missing a family member has on the living instead of speaking about the more abstract dignity for the dead. 

For Documentary magazine, Cicogna, Colombo, and Cattaneo speak about the film, negotiating the relationship between protagonists and filmmakers, degrees of unknown, and the complications of generating political will.

DOCUMENTARY: Cristina, how did you decide to start LABANOF? 

CRISTINA CATTANEO: I grew up and studied between Canada, Italy, and the UK. After I specialized in legal medicine, my mentor, who was a professor in molecular medicine, told me about forensic anthropology, a discipline that was just starting back in the 1990s in the US. He suggested we put up a forensic anthropology lab, and that's how LABANOF was born. 

DOCUMENTARY: How did you start working with migrant bodies? 

CC: There is a big issue of unidentified bodies in general, regardless of the migrants: the homeless, people who lose touch with their families and die without documents... We helped create a law according to which bodies are subjected to an autopsy, and then the data goes into a database where it is cross-referenced with missing persons. And in 2013, the issue of unidentified migrant bodies started becoming very visible. We started asking each other, why aren't we doing the same thing for these people? A new government body was created for this purpose, the Committee for Missing Persons, which is a very small office with very little funding with which we collaborate. The idea was to try and see if we could treat these bodies like regular unidentified bodies. When a plane crashes, everybody rushes to identify the crew and passengers, but with migrants, this doesn't happen. So we set out to work on this issue. 

DOCUMENTARY: Valentina and Mattia, how did you meet Cristina and decide to tell this story?

VALENTINA CICOGNA: I was writing a screenplay for a fiction film, and there was a scene about an autopsy in it, so I went to meet Cristina to get her expert advice. She had written several books about her work, and one of these, Morti senza nome [lit. The Dead without a Name] was about the pure unknown. We talked a lot about the pure unknown, and the stories she told me stayed with me. At the time, I was grieving for some people I loved, and for the first time, I realized this was a privilege. So I brought the book to Mattia in 2015, and he immediately saw the film behind that story. 

MATTIA COLOMBO: I was fascinated by the forensic work, the fact that they collect a lot of fragments, and from these, they try to reconstruct an identity. I recognized a parallel with our work as documentary filmmakers: we also collect parts of a story and try to build a narrative. 

DOCUMENTARY: Cristina, where does the term "pure unknown" come from? 

CC: In working with unidentified bodies, we usually had those who didn't have any ID, but there was a name associated with them. Those were the "unknown" with an alias, an AKA. We came up with the term "pure unknown" for migrant bodies in order to distinguish them from those others. The migrant bodies were totally unknown; we had no idea who they could be, so that's where the term comes from.  

DOCUMENTARY: How did the work on the film start? 

VC: We wrote to Cristina, and she liked the idea, but she wanted to make sure we were serious and if we shared the same values. So, in the beginning, she only allowed us to shoot with her students and colleagues. 

MC: She was testing us in a way, our passion, our desire to be there and to continue. Yes, it was difficult, but our relationship with Cristina was getting deeper and deeper. We recognized immediately that she's an everyday heroine, a person who doesn't shout, doesn't protest in the street, but who doesn't give up and, with her work, she can do a lot of things. 

CC: It must have been very tough for them for those five or six years. At LABANOF, we were very strict because we always receive many requests for documentaries and TV reports. Usually, we just do an interview, but they wanted to follow us in our daily work. So it took them a year to convince me their intentions were good. And then, actually, they were heavily censored: they were able to see everything, but we did not let them film all of it. For example, they couldn't film the bodies or remains of the migrants. 

DOCUMENTARY: How did this influence the shape of the film? 

VC: It gave us the time to reflect. We knew all along that it wasn't going to be easy to combine all the different layers that you can find within her job. But also there is the ethical side, philosophical questions about the meaning of the identity of people and society. There is the archeological work, and there is also the political side of this story.

Also, we were ready to wait for a particular case, which we got with the Albanian girl's story. You can't say when something like that will happen, so we were ready to wait.

DOCUMENTARY: That story was clearly a turning point, and I like that you placed it at the end of the film because it's so powerful. 

MC: When Mimosa's sister was killed in 1996, the status of Albanian people in Italy was the same as the migrants' status now, and the police forces from Italy and from Albania didn't share data between themselves. So it's actually thanks to the TV show "Chi l'ha visto?" [lit. "Who Saw Them?"] that Mimosa learned that her sister was missing. 

VC: Cristina called us when she was ready to exhume the remains of the cold case. We had a deep conversation with Mimosa, and she allowed us to film the scene when she came to Italy to bring the DNA sample and the key moment when Cristina was finally able to tell her the truth. 

This was indeed a very important juncture for both Cristina and us. When we were pitching the film at a big forum in Italy, one decision-maker asked, Why the dead when there is so much to do for the living? Which is the same question Cristina kept getting. So when people hear the story of Mimosa, they understand that this is the main reason to fight for this right: the effect that missing a loved one has on a person. 

DOCUMENTARY: The segments of the film restoring the bones of St. Ambrose contrast with the difficulties in getting funding: on the one hand, there is all this care for one saint who died in the 4th century, while no one is interested in the bodies of thousands of migrants.  

MC: Many people mentioned this discrepancy as important. For those who are not close to the Church, it makes them angry. To believers, there is a right connection between poor people and the fact that the Church can help to solve this. But a lot of people can feel that something is wrong in that juxtaposition. 

CC: This work was part of LABANOF's collaboration with a project on the evolution of humanity in Milan, so it is not directly related to or financed by the Church. But I have to say that the Church has helped us enormously by putting us in touch with those who gave us money for the work on migrants, and all of these are religious organizations. 

DOCUMENTARY: COVID-19 started while you were making the film, and it is interesting how you integrated it: one would expect things to change when regular Italians realized what it's like when you can't bury your dead. 

MC: That was one of the most difficult parts to craft because in a film that tries to speak about the unspeakable, that is, death, then you want to speak about another unspeakable thing, COVID-19. So we decided to introduce it little by little to remind the audience that we can empathize because we experience the same things. It's not easy for most people to put themselves in the shoes of the migrants. And if you create this connection, maybe you can understand the importance of this right that Christina is trying to support. But, in reality, nothing changed after COVID-19. In a way, things are even worse. 

DOCUMENTARY: Cristina, what is it that needs to be done to enable you to identify more migrant bodies and be able to inform their families?

CC: The University of Milan and that small government office can't deal with all the missing persons in Europe. It needs to be something that is European, and it has to be institutionalized. So the idea is, okay, we've done step one. We've proven that these people can be identified and that they have to be identified because their loved ones are looking for them. Now Europe has to get its act together and do this. It would be really very cheap and very, very easy to set up an identification system. 

DOCUMENTARY: What are the biggest obstacles to this happening?

CC: If you asked me this question ten years ago, I would have told you that it's because people don't understand that it's important. But after everything we've done, the only answer is apathy and discrimination. Because nothing is moving, and everything would be ready if there was a will. There is software ready to deal with this. If every country did its bit, it would actually be easy. 

Northern European countries would collect antemortem data [information from the families], and Southern countries would put together postmortem data [mortal remains] because the migrants usually want to go to the North, and their families would be there. Most of the bodies are in the South of Europe, so all you would need to identify them is to cross-reference the DNA data from the South with data collections in the North. Interpol and governmental agencies have the capacity to do it, and it's scandalous they have not done it yet. 

The right to identification is a human right, it's in all European constitutions, but there is no law saying that governments have to do everything they can to identify an unidentified body. So no one is going to be held accountable if this is not done. This is what we wanted to ask Europe: we don't want a protocol or best practice but a law. 

Vladan Petković is a film journalist, critic, and festival programmer. He is a correspondent for Screen International, senior writer for Cineuropa, contributing editor for IDFA's website, and head of studies of the GoCritic! training program for emerging film critics. He is a program advisor at IDFA, program director at Rab Film Festival, and a programmer at ZagrebDox, and regularly curates for other festivals and events around Europe.