Hot Docs Review: 'Who is Dayani Cristal?'

Who is Dayani Cristal?
(UK/Mexico, 86 min.)
Dir. Marc Silver, Writ. Mark Monroe
Featuring: Gael García Bernal
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)
Gael García Bernal on top of “La Bestia” train on journey from Arriaga to Ixtepec.
Photo: Marc Silver.
“Who is Dayani Cristal?” The mystery could easily fuel an episode of CSI. The question arises after a body is found in the midst of the Arizona desert. He has no identification and no documentation, but only a folded prayer in his pocket and a unique tattoo on his chest. Emblazoned across the deceased man’s pectorals are the words “Dayani Cristal.” The names become an alias for this John Doe. Another dead foreign national on American soil, “Dayani Cristal” embodies the thousands of hopeful migrants who die going nowhere from no place.

Grisly forensic work and intuitive analysis lead the search for “Dayani Cristal” down a path that would normally be solved in forty-five minutes on Prime Time television. Procedural shows like CSI, however, don’t show their audience the full stories behind men like “Dayani Cristal.” Who is Dayani Cristal? refuses to let its motivator become another anonymous statistic. “Dayani” instead becomes the face for a population of invisible citizens who tried to attain the American Dream.

Director Marc Silver tracks “Dayani” down his path to America. Interviewing the pathologists, investigators, and public servants tasked with identifying the remains, Silver uses the complicated process of piecing together the facts about a person for whom little evidence exists. Migrants like “Dayani”, the interviewees explain, travel under an alias and without documentation out of fear that capture might compromise future attempts to enter the United States. The amount of migrants crossing the border into Arizona is incalculable, save for the bodies that are left behind by those who failed on their quest.

Who is Dayani Cristal? brings its subject back to life by offering a complementary thread to the standard documentary procedural. Gael García Bernal (No) appears in the docudrama as a surrogate for the mysterious migrant. The film opens with Bernal rising from bed and setting forth on a journey. Bernal has the large tattoo on his chest in the opening scene, which later appears on the dead man and shows the audience that Bernal is following the path of a ghost.

Bernal, who also produced the film, interacts with a multitude of hopefuls as he retraces the path of “Dayani Cristal” from Honduras to America. Crosscutting between past and present, the ill-fated pilgrimage of “Dayani Cristal” creates a transnational struggle with no solution in sight. Both sides of the story—the investigators in the USA and the migrants Bernal encounters in Latin America—all convey a similar message that the dangers of the arduous and potentially fatal journey could be easily avoided. The rise in migrant deaths, the film reveals, increased exponentially with the tightening of American border and the heightened xenophobia that keeps foreign workers from filling blue-collar American jobs. The jobs are supposedly empty and the migrants seek a better life, yet the American government allegedly turns a mutually beneficial situation into an appalling mess.

The dramatized migration of “Dayani Cristal”, whose real name is Dilcy Yohan Sanchez, forges a backstory for the investigation in America. Bernal’s interaction with the migrants is poignant and offers a valuable perspective of the issue from the point of view of those outside of the United States. The interactive docu-dramatic segments add an appropriately humanist thread to complement the facts, figures, and theories posited in the conventional documentary segments.

The docudrama conceit of Who is Dayani Cristal? calls to mind Michael Winterbottom’s similar 2002 study of migration In this World. Dayani Cristal, like In this World, uses the different forms to create an effective hybrid portrait that honours its subject in one thread while exploring the topic imaginatively and subjectively in the other. The scenes with Bernal are beautifully shot (the film won a well-deserved prize for Best Cinematography in the documentary world cinema category at Sundance) and accompanied by intriguing first-person narration that merges the actor’s observations with an imaginative identification with the subject. Who is Dayani Cristal? therefore avoids much of the formal and perceptual deception/trickery that made Winterbottom’s film just as offensive as it is enlightening.

Who is Dayani Cristal is an effective study of migration and invisibility. It renders visible those who are frequently forgotten or ignored. The film, a co-production between the UK and Mexico, isn’t afraid to challenge the pitilessness of the United States’ policy to invest excessive resources in keeping outsiders at bay rather than explore opportunities for equal success. The sentimental plea on the pointlessness of the loss of lives such as Dilcy Yohan’s, however, is persuasive nevertheless since both sides of the film converge on at the argument that it’s better to save lives than to end them. Who is Dayani Cristal? is a compelling film that appeals both to the heart and to the head.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★) 

Who is Dayani Cristal screens:
Saturday, April 27 – 12:00 pm at the Bloor Cinema
Monday, April 29 – 4:00 pm at the Isabel Bader
Sunday, May 5 – 9:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information on tickets and showtimes.