Who is Dayani Cristal?

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DIR: Marc Silver • WRI: Mark Monroe • PRO: Thomas Benski, Gael Garcia Bernal, Lucas Ochoa, Marc Silver • DOP: Marc Silver ED: Martin Singer, James Smith-Rewse • MUS: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman •
CAST: Gael Garcia Bernal
 
‘In life he was considered invisible, an illegal. Now in death, he is a mystery to be solved.’

Who is Dayani Cristal? These words, tattooed on a dead man in the Arizona desert, are the only clue to his identity, and ask the first question posed to us by Marc Silver and Gael Garcia Bernal’s latest project, but not necessarily the last. Delving into the complex and timely issue of illegal immigration to the United States from South America, and the large number of missing-presumed-dead immigrants who never make it either home or away, this film takes an interesting approach in combining investigative documentary and dramatic retelling. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal’s dramatic recreation of the migrant’s last days and his encounters with others on each step of the same journey are juxtaposed with interviews with those who knew the deceased, shots of American officials on the other side attempting to identify and trace the dead man, and information about  the treacherous trek across the border.

This is a fascinating and important story, (if not, sadly, a unique one) and the combination of different forms of storytelling employed here works to varying degrees of success.  The basic, forensic detail of examining and tracing the body and the interviews presented with the border authorities and aid workers are compelling and shocking, presenting a troubling view of the American immigration system without ever being over the top. Bernal’s occasional narration complements the unobtrusive nature of Silver’s direction and photography,  allowing what is presented on screen to speak for itself and rarely imposing any kind of authoritative, partisan opinion onto the narrative, instead neatly summarising what we have already been shown. This is largely effective: Between statistics on migrant mortality, the painstaking process of tracing undocumented missing persons, and the poignant backstory of the deceased’s life, no further comment is needed – the reality is striking enough.

The presence of Bernal on-screen and his attempts to retrace the steps of the deceased, however, is a curious storytelling decision. While a charming on-screen presence, at ease singing on a train or playing football, these segments lead to some narrative dissonance. Although Bernal encounters migrants at every stage of the journey who tell him about the obstacles to crossing the border and the many dangerous elements at play, this danger is never truly palpable, no matter how many news reports about missing or dead migrants we see him absorb.

There is also a curious spiritual element to this film, bookended with ‘The Migrant’s Prayer,’ an appeal for faithful travellers to a God who also knew the force and necessity of migration. The presence of religious missions at shelters for migrants, peppered along train tracks like ‘secret railway stations,’ as Bernal calls them, is at best a celebration of the goodwill and faith of the church. At worst, however, it waxes a little too lyrically about the difficult situation of these migrants, romanticising poverty with statements like ‘poor people are the spiritual reserve of the world,’ so to then close the film on a spiritual, funereal note is slightly jarring for the wrong reasons.

Immigration between North and South America has been a thorny topic for American cinema, which tends to mask the complexities of this issue by depicting those south of the border as dangerous Mexican drug lords, intent only on pushing their product into the States, from Breaking Bad to Machete Kills. Who is Dayani Cristal? is a welcome counter-narrative to hysterical Hollywood fictions, alongside Diego Quemada-Díez’s recent film The Golden Dream, based on the reported experiences of over 600 migrants from South America about the journey across the border.

Who is Dayani Cristal? is maybe a little over-ambitious in its structure, attempting to combine different modes of storytelling and generic convention to present the case of Dayani Cristal from different angles and perspectives.  While it doesn’t fully succeed on all counts, it is an engaging, intelligent and important film, for as we learn, the story of this one man is sadly that of many, many anonymous others as well.

Stacy Grouden

12A (See IFCO for details)
84 mins

Who is Dayani Cristal? is released on 25th July 2014

Who is Dayani Cristal? – Official Website

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