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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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘Who is Dayani Cristal?’ & ‘Soldate Jeannette’

 The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

 

Matt Micucci checks out Who is Dayani Cristal? by Marc Silver and Soldate Jeannette by Daniel Hoesl, which both screened as part of the 58th Cork Film Festival.

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Who is Dayani Cristal?  (Marc Silver)

 

A powerful documentary that will surely shed a new and more human light on a delicate issue that is often viewed from a safe and unflatteringly politicised distance. Marc Silver offers a remarkable insight on the migration of poverty stricken Latin Americans to the United States, but takes a look at it from a haunting and original perspective by focusing on its dangerous and often tragic journey.

Its starting point, in fact, comes from the decomposing corpses or remains of the dead travellers found on the Sonora desert and the retracing of one of those bodies in particular – whose only initial distinguishing trait is a tattoo of the words ‘Dayani Cristal’. It is this man’s story, in fact, that is portrayed harrowingly with three different approaches – a narrative one starring Gael Garcia Bernal, an investigative one as the body’s origins are retraced and an intimate one where his family and close friends are interviewed.

The result is at once entertaining, haunting and potent as well as very important and effective in raising awareness on the issue that works as a spotlight on a specific geographic area but could a easily take more universal meaning in the subject of migration.

Furthermore, through skill and sensibility, Silver totally avoids patronisation or even exploitation. Who is Dayani Cristal? offers a voice to the voiceless and a strong human standpoint that urges international dialogue.

 

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Soldate Jeannette (Daniel Hoesl)

 

The story of Fanni and Anna, two women sickened by the lives they lead; the first lives a life of pretend luxury and another a life of squalor among the pigs and the cows in a slaughter farm. The two meet. It’s hard to believe that Rotterdam almost fooled everyone into thinking that this was a landmark work of modern experimental cinema when it awarded it the Tiger Award.

It is a goofy attempt at depth and substance inexplicably referring to Dreyer’s Joan of Arc but ending up being half the movie Thelma and Louise was. The worst part is that Hoesl would rather fool us into thinking that Soldate Jeannette is a fresh and original tribute to the experimental cinema of the European no-wave than come up with anything that really is original in form, theme and context.

It’s the type of film that burns fake money and kills real animals on screen. Disgusting. Some people will be fooled by its clever antics, but this is a kind of snobbish swindle and an insulting betrayal to innovation.

 

www.corkfilmfest.org

Check out our Cork Film Festival coverage here

 

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