On August 3, 2010, a body of a man was found under a tree in in the Sonoran desert in Arizona. Like so many bodies found on the deadly, vast landscape where it can get so cold at night that men report feeling like they would freeze to death if they stopped for five minutes, the deceased carried no identification. He carried something called The Migrant’s Prayer and had a notable tattoo across his chest of two words, one on each pectoral – “Dayani” and “Cristal.” What did they mean? Who was this man? And what does his story tell us about the stories of other Central Americans who try to flee poverty to make a living for their families in the United States.
Directed by Marc Silver, Who is Dayani Cristal? is part immigration documentary from the viewpoint of those on the border in Arizona and part drama in that producer Gael Garcia Bernal retraces the steps of the man who sparked the film and countless others who have made the same journey. In scenes that blend reality, dramatic recreations, and straight-up fiction filmmaking, Bernal speaks to fellow immigrants trying to travel North, rides the train that takes them across most of their journey, and even ends up climbing a ladder over the fence between Mexico and Arizona. Silver intercuts scenes with Bernal’s travels with interviews with the men and women who try to identify immigrant John and Jane Does in the U.S. and the family members of the man who tattooed Dayani and Cristal into his chest.
Bernal makes an engaging lead in anything he does and this is clearly a subject that’s close to his heart. Watching him play soccer with fellow travelers on a break from the train at one of many migrant stations or have conversations with people about the work they hope to find in their new lives has an inherent power. However, the way that Bernal and Silver blend documentary and narrative filmmaking in these segments is more distracting than engaging. If it’s real, how did they explain the camera? If it’s staged, why bother? I would have found straight-up interviews with migrants or looks at the stops along the way from Honduras to Arizona more interesting than the attempts at dramatic urgency by turning it into what most people would mistake for a Bernal drama were they to stumble upon it. The structural decisions were flawed from the beginning.
The pure documentary portion of Who is Dayani Cristal? focuses on the passion of the people who make a living trying to track down identities of John Does and return loved ones to their families, intercut with interviews with the wife, children, and family members of the mysterious deceased. The Americans delve a bit into politics, making cases for how these demonized people are just the hard-working folk who take the blue collar jobs that we don’t really want, and, interestingly, note how further restrictions in Texas and California have led many people to try to cross in Arizona, where the many square miles of barren land are arguably the most treacherous. The family of the mystery man adds an emotional weight to the film although the final act feels a bit manipulative in the way we invade their notable grief. If the film’s point is to show us that this man could have been anyone, the severe focus on his individual story for long stretches of the climax was a mistake.
Immigration has been a hot-button subject matter for film, especially the kind of doc films that play at Sundance, for years. The problem with Who is Dayani Cristal? is that it simply doesn’t add enough to the conversation to make it memorable.