Puerto Berrío, like a lot of Colombian towns along the Magdalena river, has for three decades been a locus of violence between paramilitaries, guerrilla groups, and drug cartels. One hidden consequence is the proliferation of unidentified corpses, known colloquially as “no-names,” dumped upstream into the Magdalena and recovered by fishermen.
“Suddenly, a person or a head in your net,” says one man in Juan Manuel Echavarría’s Réquiem NN. “It’s shocking.” In this quiet, somber film, Echavarría documents the surprising cultural eddies swirling around these lost people: the men who recover and transport bodies for burial; the cemetery caretakers and clergy who pray for the souls in purgatory; the Puerto Berrío residents who “adopt” individual no-names, decorate their ossuaries, and pray to them with requests for supernatural aid. Echavarría follows several of these people, including Jair Humberto Urrego, a store owner who adopted a female no-name he calls Gloria, who he insists appears to him in dreams and grants his requests.
Cycling to the cemetery to visit Gloria is part of his daily routine. Blanca Nury Bustamante is a middle-aged woman whose story is the obverse of Jair’s: Her two children, a son and a daughter, disappeared years before. She papers Puerto Berrío with flyers that include a morphological image of her daughter Lizeth depicting what she might look like now. Health department officials attempt to keep people from no-name adoption practices, citing hindrances to investigation, but it’s clear from Echavarría’s shots of grid-like tombs, decorated by the faithful and surrounded by offerings, that the flood of corpses far outstrips the state’s capacity for indexing the dead.