Every Human Being Must Have a Name: Notes on Héctor Gálvez' "NN"

in 41st Seattle International Film Festival

by Dennis West

One of the finest Latin American features screened at the 41st edition of the Seattle International Film Festival was Peruvian screenwriter-director Héctor Gálvez’ fiction film NN, a designation applied to cadavers or human remains that cannot be identified. Human bones—the skeletal remains of a nameless man, a murder victim—are the haunting dominant image in this narrative, which provocatively explores the moral quandary of a forensic anthropologist tasked with rescuing and then identifying the corpses of Peruvian desaparecidos.

The narrative commences deliberately, with a stationary-camera establishing shot: we are on a bare Andean mountainside—bathed in bright sunshine—observing a distant forensics team excavating behind the stretched out yellow tape marking off a crime scene. As the narrative unfolds chronologically, we learn that all the bodies in the mass grave are eventually identified except one, a middle-aged male extra-judicially executed with a shot to the head from a 9mm pistol. No identity document was discovered in the clothing of this victim, so several scenes depict efforts—such as the removal of bone marrow for a DNA check—to successfully identify this nameless person. All the while the working-class woman of indigenous origin, who may or may not be the actual widow, waits for results. The forensic anthropologist, the film’s middle-aged male protagonist, is eventually unable to obtain a DNA match, so he faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to tell the presumed widow that the bones are indeed her husband’s—after all, she has been grimly awaiting news about her disappeared spouse for over two decades; and, in addition, no other name can be attached to the remains. To paraphrase Shakespeare: to be the disappeared, long sought husband, or not to be said person, that is the question for the forensic anthropologist, who must struggle with the moral burden of having to play God and decide to give a name or not—and to decide in the present who was in the past.

Gálvez has wisely rejected overtly conventional narrative signals, such as musical cues; and he has adopted a visual style that is observational, deliberately spare, and seemingly objective: stationary-camera set-ups predominate in order to encourage viewers to calmly take in and understand the implications of the frequently grim mise-en-scène unfolding before them. Images of human bones predominate in several scenes, including a powerful moment in which Gálvez forces us to ponder the carefully arranged bones of the nameless victim laid out flat on a slab—bones lacking the flesh and organs that would constitute the full materiality of a human body. We wonder where the final resting place for these remains will be, and just what the unclaimed remains of victims found in mass graves do imply for a society that has recently transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy. How can these bones be treated with respect, and how can society not forget them? How can democratic societies manage these pressing issues of memory?

These themes, as well as powerful visual imagery involving skeletal remains, have become common in recent films set in Latin America in the last decades of the 20th Century. In Pamela Yates’ powerful feature documentary How to Nail a Dictator (2011), a forensic anthropologist in Guatemala City holds out in his hand human bones he has uncovered during his excavation work in a deep well in a cemetery—where the bodies of extra-judicially executed victims were dumped during the repressive Rios Montt anti-communist military dictatorship in the 1980s. The Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, in his recent masterpiece Nostalgia for the Light (2010), uses the search for human remains as a central theme in his exploration of the atrocities and human rights violations of Pinochet’s right-wing military regime. In one riveting sequence in Nostalgia for the Light, the camera travels through a Chilean warehouse where unclaimed human bones are unceremoniously jumbled together in seemingly endless rows of cardboard boxes. Such boxes of unnamed bones reappear as a disquieting motif in NN, where the protagonist eventually discovers that the Peruvian bureaucracy that he works for is short of space—so those troublesome boxes of bones must eventually be shuttled upstairs to the rooftop, where they will gather dust and then be forgotten. Societies will patriotically erect a “tomb of the unknown soldier”, but boxes of unclaimed bones dating to past repressive dictatorships become simply a nuisance and eventually an embarrassment for currently democratic regimes.

In NN, Gálvez does not spell out the national socio-political and historical context providing the backdrop for his narrative, since Peruvian audiences remain painfully aware of the devastating war waged between Sendero Luminoso and the nation’s military in the 1980s-early 1990s. Sendero Luminoso was a Maoist-influenced guerrilla group that became the most murderous revolutionary movement to appear in Latin America in the 20th Century. To stamp out this movement, the Peruvian military viciously responded in kind, routinely violating the human rights of both civilians and members of Sendero Luminoso. Very pointedly in NN, it never becomes clear if the nameless victim was executed by Sendero Luminoso or by the Peruvian military—for the unnamed dead, the end result is the same.

But, in the film’s final sequence, the victim does finally get a name; it is carved “for eternity”—along with dates of birth and death—into a plastered-over white niche in a cemetery. This, regardless of the fact that there is no DNA match, and so the bones cannot correspond to the name on the niche. Audiences can weigh the question of whether or not the forensic anthropologist’s decision represents a morally correct choice. With this emotionally powerful work of art, Gálvez succeeds in using cinema to keep alive pressing issues of memory in his native Peru.

Dennis West