The forensic aspect of criminal investigation has become critical in recent years, Frank Bender on the cutting edge of the scene purely by virtue of interest and circumstance. An artist, advertising photographer and recent student of sculpture, Frank recreates a lifelike bust of the unrecognizable skull of a murdered woman in a local Philadelphia coronerís department.
Suddenly Frank has found his passion, albeit a low-paying one. For the following years, in spite of successful identifications through his endeavors, the Bender familyís financial lives are beleaguered by lack of funds as his photographic assignments become less frequent. The skulls continue to arrive from agencies across the country - the FBI, U.S. Marshals, even TVís popular ďAmericaís Most Wanted.Ē
There is no question of Frankís priorities. In the melding of art and cause he has found the perfect combination, contributing to the solution of cold cases, speaking for those whose voices have been silenced by murderers.
Botha follows Benderís career path from the early days of his forensic recreations to the much-publicized successes that bring an avalanche of requests to his Philadelphia studio. As his reputation grows, Frank throws himself into the work that so consumes him. Case by case, Botha describes the gruesome details of Benderís work, the recreation of facial characteristics, using the most elementary framework of the skull, and Franksí often-intuitive choice of features for each subject.
It is a time-consuming and psychologically draining process, often the stuff of nightmares, but Bender is uniquely talented and successful. His growing expertise more and more in demand, unfortunately the agencies requiring his aid rarely have the budgets to support Frankís efforts on their behalf.
Perhaps the most frustrating and complicated case of his career comes at the request of the Mexican government. A series of murders has plagued Juarez and Chihuahua, young women of the poorest classes disappearing, their bodies later recovered as skeletons in the desert.
Given the accommodations he requests, Frank sets about reconstructing the first five skulls he is given by the authorities, proceeding successfully only to be blocked by warring Mexican bureaucracies, the local police vs. the federales, the feminicidios a political football that bodes ill for the womenís identification. As the murders continue, so does Benderís frustration with the corrupt government, as well as a pervasive sense of danger.
In the end, most of the faces remain unidentified by the public, perhaps from political intimidation. There will not be a happy resolution for Frank, his inspired work on behalf of the victims lost in the recesses of the secretive Mexican government.
In spite of the inevitable failure of Mexicoís system, Botha offers a fascinating portrait of one manís dedication to his art and lifetime work, a significant contribution to the changing face of forensic investigation.