Film Review - Who is Dayani Cristal?

Marc Silver’s award-winning documentary, Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), co-produced by and starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, explores the identity and tragic fate of one economic migrant after he attempts to forge a life for himself in the United States. Every year, thousands of Mexicans, Central and South Americans illegally cross the Mexican-US border in search of work and at considerable risk to their own lives.

One of the most inhospitable terrains that the desperate migrants have to navigate is the Sonora desert in Arizona, known as ‘the corridor of death’. Here, decomposing corpses or body parts are regularly picked up by the border patrol. A team of experts then have to set about trying to identify the victims in order to notify their families and return the bodies to them. This is no easy task – sometimes they have only bones and of the 2000 bodies recovered from the desert over the last decade, 700 remain unidentified.

When yet another anonymous body is brought into the Medical Examiner’s Office in Tuscon, Bernal and Silver decide to follow and record the forensic investigation and their attempts to discover the man’s identity. The only clue is a tattoo on his chest bearing the name ‘Dayani Cristal’.

After the man’s origins come to light, the film’s team use the testimony of his family and friends, to retrace the dead man’s journey. Bernal joins a group of migrants travelling across Central America before they attempt to cross the notorious Mexican-US border. The cinematography is superb. The reconstruction of the journey includes breathtaking imagery of the harsh landscape the migrants are up against as well as stunning footage of young men riding atop a train known as ‘La Bestia’. Footage from their journey is combined with interviews with various border officials and the forensic experts who are clearly determined to discover the identities of the dead.

At the heart of this moving film is a firm rebuttal of the demonisation of migrants and the usual rhetoric surrounding ‘aliens’ and ‘illegals’. The US border officials are unexpectedly compassionate, focusing on the humane rather than political issues, and the dedication of the forensic team is truly impressive. Silver and writer Mark Monroe draw out the universal themes of hope, aspiration and love and underline the fact that the majority of impoverished migrants, like the tattooed ‘Dayani Cristal’, risk their lives on a daily basis to provide for their families.

Wisely, they choose to reveal the man’s origins, his personal story and reasons for travelling north only at the end. This is documentary filmmaking at its best – one that delivers a definite message and packs a powerful punch.

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