In Pure Unknown, the director duo Mattia Colombo and Valentina Cicogna explore essential topics: human rights and respecting the dignity of the deceased whose identities remain a mystery – mostly homeless people, sex workers, fleeing adolescents, and lately, a lot of migrants who have died in the Mediterranean Sea. This film poses a thought-provoking question – how much resources should society spend on the dead when there is not enough for the living? The film’s true inspiration is its main protagonist – the forensic scientist Cristina Cattaneo, who not only leads the research in her autopsy room in Milan but also passionately fights for a change in the legal system. Her mission is to ensure that every forgotten soul receives its rightful dignity – the right to identity after death.
A forbidden topic
Western societies struggle to address the subject of death openly. Philippe Ariès, a French historian, delves into these attitudes’ historical evolution in his book Western Attitudes Towards Death. He argues that starting from the 19th century, death began to carry a sense of shame and became taboo. Ariès’ claim is grounded in the fact that in earlier times, it was commonplace for many individuals, including family members, neighbours and children, to be involved in the dying process. This is a far cry from today’s norms, where death is often removed from home and entrusted to medical professionals in care facilities or hospitals. When it comes to the deaths of anonymous individuals, society tends to distance itself even further.
On the one hand, these unknown individuals seem to be useless; on the other hand, their deaths often serve as an uncomfortable reminder that something may not be functioning as it should. In many cases, the deceased individuals could have been saved if society had been organised in a more compassionate manner, allocating more resources to the rescue of migrants in peril and providing stronger protection for the vulnerable through the police and justice system.
However, acknowledging these uncomfortable truths is not easy. It is simpler to pretend that these marginalized people do not exist, even to the point where spending just 250 euros on DNA analysis for the deceased migrants may seem too much of an effort.
how much resources should society spend on the dead when there is not enough for the living?
Bodies and stories
Cristina’s fight brings her to the European Parliament, where she delivers a speech arguing for the need to identify the dead, emphasising the importance of identifying the deceased for the sake of the individuals themselves and their grieving relatives. There have been scientific studies proving that living without knowing whether a close person is alive or dead has a negative impact on one’s mental health. This is effectively portrayed in Julien Elie’s documentary Dark Suns (2018). The director follows relatives who sometimes, for decades, keep looking for their missing family members – most of them kidnapped and often killed by the Mexican Mafia.
Nevertheless, the anguish of parents, spouses, children and other beloved ones is frequently overlooked when discussing those who have drowned in the Mediterranean. Migrants are often simply regarded as part of an anonymous multitude. At the same time, the story of Alan Kurdi touched many. A single picture of the drowned three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background became a symbol for the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. Suddenly, the migrant body was not just one of an anonymous mass of people. It was a human child with a name and a biography. Our society seems to have too little imagination – we need real stories and names to overcome ignorance and start screaming loudly and massively sharing information on social media channels.
Need for a change
Italy has become notorious for its problematic attitude towards immigrants and the rise of right-wing movements. Surprisingly, its government appears disinterested in providing sufficient funds to address the issue of deceased migrants. However, the European Union could create new legislation that ensures that those who have passed away are granted the right to be identified. We are all familiar with the term «human rights.» Paradoxically, these fundamental rights seem to fade away once an individual has perished. Suddenly, the right to identity is no longer guaranteed.
This struggle is well apparent on Cristina’s computer screen and represents her ceaseless efforts in writing emails, advocating for funding and calling for legal change. Hopefully, international recognition of this pressing problem will emerge, but until then, we need films like Pure Unknown, artworks like Barca Nostra – a shipwreck presented at the 2019 Venice Biennale illuminating the migrant tragedy, and people like Cristina, who fights to highlight people’s rights that very few want to even think about. Possibly, if the broader society becomes more aware of the rights of the deceased, it may also become more mindful of the rights of those who are alive. Some tragedies could have been prevented if a larger portion of society viewed fellow human beings as individuals rather than anonymous entities.