Director: Marc Silver
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal
Running Time: 85 mins
Release Date: July 25th
The struggle of illegal immigrants to the United States is something that the majority of Irish people would have a passing knowledge of, but for most it stops at undocumented workers being taken advantage of in low paying jobs that nobody else wants. With the documentary Who Is Dayani Cristal?, filmmaker Marc Silver aims to take us inside the perilous journeys these people are taking in order to reach the United States, journeys that often end in tragedy.
The documentary opens with border police finding the remains of a man in some bushes in the Arizona desert. They find nothing to identify him apart from a large tattoo on his chest of the words ‘Dayani Cristal’. So begins the search to find the identity of this man, tracing his journey and trying to understand why he made the decisions he made that led him to that tragic end.
Gael Garcia Bernal is our narrator and also has an on-screen role, following the man’s journey from Central America to the Arizona desert, taking the paths he most likely took and engaging with others who are on that same trip, many for a second or third time. The story is really brought to life through these scenes, as we are brought face to face with the unrelenting poverty so many of these people endure, to the point where they seemingly have no choice but to make the potentially fatal decision to try to get across the border at any cost.
In some ways, however, Bernal is a distraction, and might have been better served to remain off-screen. As one traveller puts it, the many different nationalities that make the journey: Hondurans, Bolivians, Guatemalans, Mexicans, all find a sort of brotherhood in the fact that they are “all the same team – the other team”. Bernal can never truly understand what it is to be part of that group and as such comes off as being a sort of migration tourist, enjoying the camaraderie, but never going to struggle as the others do.
As we follow American investigators attempting to discover the true identity of the body found in the desert, one thing that stands out is that nobody who works closely with these cases thinks that the current immigration system is just, in fact they are the most vocal opponents in the documentary. One states that America must accept that it “benefits from a blue collar workforce that has brown skin”, while others criticise the Clinton-era strategic border plan, which increased border patrols in urban areas and forced more potential immigrants to take the infinitely more dangerous desert routes, which has led to an average of 170 bodies being found each year in Arizona.
This is a heartbreaking story, which gives insight on a far more personal level than really wanting to tackle the political intricacies of the situation. As the mystery of the man with the tattoos is slowly revealed we are finally drawn, as close as outsiders can get, into the grief and tragedy felt not only by this man’s family, but by his wider community, who see this happen on a far too regular basis. In the beginning we are told of this man, “in life he was invisible, in death he’s considered a mystery to be solved’. As his remains are reunited with his family we see that this man was far from invisible. The outpouring of grief is palpable and even from the remove of a darkened cinema auditorium it is difficult not to be moved.
This story aims to persist beyond its screen time, as well it should. More information on migration and what can be done to help can be found on the Who Is Dayani Cristal? website, and Silver and Bernal also worked with Amnesty International to produce a series of short films about migration to the United States called The Invisibles which are available to view on YouTube.
A highly emotive documentary that, while at times moralistic and simplistic in dealing with what is a complex situation, paints a compelling picture of a sadly underreported modern tragedy.