Review: Who is Dayani Cristal (Sundance 2013)
PLOT: The body of an anonymous migrant worker- who was trying to make it over the U.S border is discovered in the Arizona desert. The only clue as to his identity is a tattoo on his chest reading “Dayani Cristal”.
REVIEW: WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL is a low-key but effective choice to kick off Sundance 2013. Long a festival concerned with social justice, with founder Robert Redford himself having explored the subject of migrant workers in THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR, DAYANI CRISTAL turns a critical eye towards U.S immigration policy- particularly the astounding leap in deaths occurring close to the border since the millennium.
What makes DAYANI CRISTAL particularly interesting is that it's a hybrid of documentary and narrative film-making. The film is co-directed by Marc Silver and actor Gael Garcia Bernal- who, in the narrative sections that recreate “Dayani Cristal's” journey to the U.S, plays the man in question. The film, which only runs a brisk eighty minutes is fairly evenly spread between documentary and narrative making this a true docu-drama. The documentary side is mostly concerned with the general plight of migrant workers, and the question is raised that in a country where citizens are frequently unwilling to take service- labor jobs, what's the harm in allowing immigrants to fill that role? A lot of time is also spent examining the man's family back in Honduras, and explains why this family man, who had a wife and three kids- had to leave them for a new life in America.
A significant amount of time is spent on the detective work done by the various agencies that recovered the body. In an interesting twist, as even the most cutting edge technology proves to be useless- and it's admitted by everyone involved that were it not for his distinctive tattoo, his might have been a mystery that would have never been solved.
Meanwhile, the narrative part of the film is very verité, with Bernal and his small crew shooting on the real route taken by this man as he attempted to reach the U.S- and Bernal frequently, although never entirely out of character, slips into the documentarian role himself, getting the various migrants to open up regarding their circumstances and previous, failed attempts to cross the border. A particularly interesting bit takes place at a Mexican sanctuary for migrant workers- on their way to the border, run by the church. Here- the migrants, most of whom have had to use their life savings to pay for coyote's to take them across the border, are able to rest for the journey ahead.
In the end, “Dayani Cristal” is an anonymous man who, in a sad twist of fate, is treated more compassionately in death than he ever was in life. WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? is certainly a quiet, low-key doc, but it feels like an important film that asks questions that need to be answered, or at least acknowledged. It's provocative, but really, I wouldn't want anything less than that to kick off this particular fest.