Réquiem NN Review

Posted: June 11, 2014 in Documentary, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

Requiem_NN_Still_TombLike many treasures, Réquiem NN, a gem of a documentary film, remains largely out of sight. Screenings of the movie can be difficult to find, but well worth the effort. What, at first glance, appears to be the story of an odd ritual peculiar to one Colombian town reveals itself to be, perhaps unintentionally, a meditation on the living and the dead, and the complex relationship between the two, when viewed through the prisms of identity, remembrance, and religion.

Puerto Berrío is a town of approximately 35,000, located in northwestern Colombia. It has served as a port of commercial significance on the Magdalena River since its founding in 1875. Agricultural and forestry products go from the countryside through the port to Medellín, while the traffic in the opposite direction is composed of coffee, textiles, and other finished products. Over the last three decades, the waters of the Magdalena River have carried an all together different commodity to the port of Puerto Berrío: corpses. Victims of the long-standing, low-intensity conflict between the central government and a number of armed guerilla opposition movements have been dumped in the Magdalena over the years. Criminals or those who have run afoul of criminals have met a similar end.

For 30 years, fishermen and others, including rescue squads officially charged with the task, have recovered the dead bodies and brought them ashore. The documentary begins here with a brief explanation of the situation, and interviews with those who have retrieved the corpses, including one man who ferried the bodies from the port to the cemetery on his pedicycle. What happens to the bodies after that is what makes Puerto Berrío unique.

The corpses, each of which is designated “NN” for No Name, are stored in temporary vaults. After a period of time, the remains are moved to a mass grave unless they are identified or someone steps in and pays for an individual ossuary. The people of  Puerto Berrío have taken to “adopting” the unidentified bodies, decorating their temporary vaults, baptizing them with their own family names, and, in some cases, paying for an ossuary and then tending the final burial sites themselves. Some of the No Names attract followings and are credited with blessing multiple believers, each of whom may offer something by way of thanks: flowers, glasses of water, a coat of paint on the exterior of the vault, a small stone placard acknowledging the favor.

At first blush, these acts appear to be pure altruism. The documentary shows there is much more to it than simple charity. The belief that souls in purgatory can grant favors to the living has led the citizens of the town to this practice. The No Names are adopted with the hope that they will bestow favors. If that occurs, the memories of the dead are preserved. If not, they are thrown into the pit of anonymity. And so, the people of  Puerto Berrío  have unwittingly recreated on Earth a mirror version of the spiritual dimensions of the afterlife. The No Names are first brought to the purgatory of the temporary vault. If they prove worthy by bestowing favors, they are elevated to heaven by baptism and burial in an individual ossuary. If they fail, they are cast into the Hell of the mass grave where they will spend eternity without identity.

At times, there is possessiveness and jealousy with citizens claiming No Names for themselves and forbidding others from praying to them for favors. Others cooperate and jointly celebrate their No Name. One man claims that his adoptee has granted numerous favors over the years, but is quick to point out that he doesn’t ask her for lottery numbers.

A forensic doctor interviewed for the documentary speaks out against the practice, saying that it complicates identification of the bodies. This difficult balance between searching for the families of the victims and treating the remains with dignity is poignantly displayed through a mother who is shown searching for her children who have disappeared. She does not acknowledge that her son and daughter may be among those who have been rescured from the river. She does not appear ready to accept the possibility, so the notion that others have given a different identity to her offspring and buried them under another name is not addressed.

Réquiem NN is the first film by Juan Manuel Echavarría, a photographer who initially went to Puerto Berrío to photograph the graves. The documentary is 68 minutes long and without narration. Beautifully shot and carefully edited, the film is a singular and powerful experience.

Four stars.

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