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East End Film Festival: Who Is Dayani Cristal? – Review

June 22, 2014

FestivalsFilm + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


Who Is Dayani Cristal

When an unknown body is found nestled under trees in the shade of the Arizona desert, he becomes another statistic, another failed attempt to reach the promised land of the US, another space taken up in the overburdened morgues of the US border towns. There is no name, no notes written down of where he came from, where he wanted to be, and how he ended up dead a twenty-minute car ride from the nearest city. Only a tattoo, Dayani Cristal, inscribed across his chest. For a lot of the rising number of bodies found in the desert, that is how they will stay, anonymous and a number. But, Who is Dayani Cristal? takes us along an emotive and insightful journey into a microcosm of the mass migration attempts from Central American states into the US – a human face on a debate heard from Honduran villages to the halls of Washington.

Director Marc Silver and Gael García Bernal brush across the statistics, and dive into a multi-faceted approach on how people on the ground deal with this increasing phenomenon. It is not an ordinary talking heads style, and instead sifts through three layers throughout the film: how the US officials try to identify sunburnt bodies, once desperate people taking on a life-threatening journey; how the families left behind come to terms with the loss of a loved one pursuing the fabled American Dream; and how the journey is made, fraught with the ever-looming risk of kidnapping, and the difficult treks by rafts, buses, trains and foot. However, it’s not just a hot-button topic documentary, it also delves into issues of personal loss, of what the pursuit of the American Dream means today, of the fraternity amongst those making the uncertain trip, and the inequality that has forced them on the road.

As Gael García Bernal embeds himself among the migrants, from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and other Central American states, we get a glimpse of travelers who realize they are facing impeding doom at each turn in the journey. From the risk of sleeping on top of fast-moving scaling trains, to having the pressure of holding onto you all the money you own, or as Bernal puts it, having your family’s future in your back pocket. Bernal acknowledges that he can never feel the extent of peril that the ordinary migrants do – he can leave whenever he wants. Equipped with a backpack and a baseball cap, he trades stories with travelling migrants – we don’t know what happens to those he meets, who made it, and how far they got to. However, Bernal’s screen presence provides little else than a star name credit and self-congratulation of Hollywood self-awareness. The film would lose little besides his name on the poster if it focused a bit more on the migrants, and less on Bernal’s impersonation of one.

The film won the cinematography award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and rightly so, from its shot of the gorgeous Mexican landscapes along the railroads, to the opening scenes of the anonymous body, blurred and bloated. It hits with the cold fact of the painstaking work of the Arizona forensics teams, who are the genuine surprise of the film. Working with grisly remains and a slim chance of reuniting the bodies with their families, the teams work tirelessly to match teeth, fingerprints, sunburn clothes, and despite all this, no-one appears jaded.

who is dayani crystal?

At the core of this documentary is a story told countless times in Hollywood films, of ordinary people doing extraordinary things for the ones they love. The problems that forced the man in question onto the road are the same that affect countless others, from having children suffer illness to having the pressure of mounting debts and wanting to provide more for your family. Yet the documentary, for all its criticism for the status quo, fails to deliver a solution. However, it sparks the debate further and gives a human grounding to a conversation often concerned with statistics and economics.

Who Is Dayani Cristal? screens at the East End Film Festival on June 24th and is released in UK cinemas on July 25th.

Oliver Smith