He was found in the Sonoran desert by Arizona border patrols, just a 20-minute car ride away from Tucson, his corpse already distended and purple and covered in flies, his fingers too dehydrated to get usable prints. The only thing on his body was a small book called The Migrant’s Prayer. No ID, no records on file with U.S. authorities, no missing person cases that matched his description at the Mexican consulate.
The only clue? The name tattooed across his chest: Dayani Cristal. A combination of documentary and re-creation of actual events, director Marc Silver’s movie takes a different approach to the immigration debate. When the number of migrant deaths in Arizona rose from 19 in 2000 to more than 200 a year by 2008, the filmmaker started tagging along with state authorities as they patrolled the borders, trying to see if he could stumble across a story.
He found a great, yet tragic story. Half of Who is Dayani Cristal? consists of interviews with coroners, ambassadors, social workers and medical examiners, who talk about the reasons for the increase in migrant deaths, show us the ways in which they try to identify the dead (the footage is extremely graphic) and express their frustration at having a warehouse filled with corpses of people who probably have a family somewhere, desperately waiting for news.
The other half of the film follows Gael García Bernal as he retraces the man’s journey. His identity is revealed early on as a Honduran husband and father with a sick daughter and insurmountable debts who decided to try to reach the U.S. to find work to help his family.
The sequences with Bernal (who also co-produced the film) aren’t recreations. The people he meets along the way aren’t actors, and the migrants he meets as they make the dangerous trek from Central America accept him into their ranks (the men obviously know they’re being filmed, but it’s unclear if they know Bernal, a huge star in Mexico).
The alternating sequences between straightforward investigation and lyrical road trip (including a stunning shot of a train known as “The Beast” speeding through the desert, hundreds of migrants hitching a ride on its roof) help to humanize Who is Dayani Cristal? and turn it into something far richer and more moving than a polemic. There’s no question which side of the immigration debate the filmmakers are on — if anything, the movie at times feels a bit too heavy-handed and rosy-eyed — but the artistic strategy by Silver and Bernal pays off. The focus of Who is Dayani Cristal? may be the deadly dangers of illegal border crossings, but its true subject is ordinary people and the things they’ll do for the ones they love.
With: Gael García Bernal.
Director: Marc Silver.
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe.
Running time: 85 minutes. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Graphic autopsy footage, disturbing imagery, adult themes. Opens Friday April 25 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.