Night after night, Taariq, Lungi and Pierre wait for people to die. They aren’t ghouls. They are three of the forensic pathology officers at one of Cape Town’s busiest morgues – Salt River Mortuary. They’re the stars of the documentary Six to Six, which won director-writer Mia Cilliers the 2017 SAFTA for Best Achievement In Directing: Documentary Short, along with the audience award in the Local Flavour Showcase at the Shnit International Short Film Festival in 2018.
Mia and her team spent two years on-and-off documenting the lives of the nightshift staff, seeing how they cope with tragedy, loss and horror while keeping their spirits up.
“We’d like to thank Forensic Pathology Services for giving us access to their world and sharing their experiences with us. Documentaries like this cannot be made without people giving of themselves and we appreciate that endlessly,” says Mia.
“Our challenges in shooting Six To Six were mostly about getting access to scenes and permission to film, and also making sure we had characters who were compelling and committed to the shoot. In the end, we found three wonderfully engaging characters in Pierre, Lungi and Taariq who each had very different perspectives on the work they do,” Mia adds.
Here are six things we didn’t know about life after dark before watching Six To Six.
In some ways, it’s like every office. In downtime at the morgue, Taariq reveals that he sings or watches cat videos on his cellphone. And on nights when it’s quiet, the staff do get playful. Pierre reveals the night that he took a nap in a body bag (when they still had the zip up bags as opposed to the white plastic sheeting they use now), his colleagues snapped a photo and turned it into a screensaver.
Some cases are more difficult
Lungelwa’s (Lungi) worst days on the job are when she has to dissect a baby during autopsy. “It’s very touching, especially for me, I’m a mother,” she adds. “You must just close your eyes and think this is not your baby. It’s dead, it feels no pain, it’s just a body.” And Pierre relates that in the case of train accidents, the morgue staff often have to walk over 100 metres picking up body parts.
It’s not like on TV
The receiving room at the morgue doesn’t look all that different from a large industrial bakery. The walk-in fridge is green-walled, a little dingy, with stainless steel racks and gurneys. “They think it looks like CSI on television,” says Pierre, “but once they get downstairs, then they decide, ‘No, this is not for me.’ The place gets cleaned every single day, but there is that odour that still stays here.” Lungi admits, “I can’t sleep in the rooms that side; I get so many nightmares.”
The staff find it a little disconcerting to work on fresh bodies, which happens in cases where religions require burial within 24 hours. One worker reveals, “The body is still warm, the blood is still warm. It’s not like the morning you took it out of the fridge. It’s like I’m killing someone.”
The mortuary workers go to the death scenes in pairs and have to be strong enough to help one another to lift the dead weight of the bodies. And they have to be emotionally strong enough to help the people who come to the mortuary to identify their loved ones’ bodies.
Sunday is one of the busiest days at the mortuary thanks to a spike in alcohol-based violence, suicides and accidents on Saturday nights.