Opening at the 2013 Sundance Festival, Marc Silver's Who Is Dayani Cristal is a tender documentary chronicling the exasperating struggles faced by Central American immigrants heading north to the United States. Focussing on the journey of one particular migrant, the film melds more traditional documentary style interviews and reportage with a fictional framework, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, who retraces the perilous route ventured on by desperate migrant workers. Informative and told with a stoic sense of compassion, the film succeeds in rendering a personal face to the so often aggrandised problem of immigration, but is undermined by the disjunctive fictional sub-narrative.
We begin in the Arizonian desert where an anonymous dead body has been discovered; one of the many "illegals" only too often found, perished under the merciless heat of the sun. The individual bears no means of identification, save a large tattoo spread across his chest reading "Dayani Cristal". So begins the extensive investigation undertaken by the Arizona border officials to attempt to identify the deceased, taking us across Central America to Honduras, to interview his friends and family and finally bringing closure to his terminal journey. Alongside the episodic pace of the investigation is a fictional, quasi re-enactment of the migratory route taken by the anonymous, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, attempting to portray the extent to which many will go to ameliorate their work and living conditions.
Image from NYT
The film is a great visual achievement, scooping an award for cinematography at Sundance, and deservedly so. The swooping vistas of the various landscapes are stunning and capture the magnanimity of their traverse across the Americas with a supreme aesthetic. Coupled with the powerful images of stacks of anonymous bodies in bags, unidentified skulls and personal effects, the film is a real spectacle and a testament to the stark anthropic disassociation and dissemblance that occurs in migratory investigations. Not so much individuals with agency, but numbers in an excel spreadsheet, lost in their volumes.
Where the film finds itself a little heavy on its feet is with the fictional side-thread. There's something a little crass about watching an Oscar nominated and supremely handsome actor play pretend as he mucks in with genuine migrants, resorting to desperate measures to try and improve the lives of themselves and their families. Whilst a professed attempt to introduce the audience to travelling migrants first hand, encouraging them to look past the damaging stereotypes surrounding them, the focus seems to fall nominally on Bernal's head and his journey, who we know to be playing a fictional character. The synergy of fiction and documentary film-making bears potential, but the film would have benefitted by sticking to the age old documentary framework, the fictional aspects proving somewhat insoluble to the rest of the film.
The film can be commended for its use of pacing, which allows for a gradual and poignant final reveal. The film's closing chapter aims straight for the tear duct and does so with sensitivity, moving away from the political and reflecting on the objectively sad nature of the death of a father, husband and friend. Informative and thought provoking, the film is dragged down by its fictional framework, which makes for a slightly confused tone and undermines its otherwise strong documentary basis.
Who is Dayani Cristal is released on 25th July in selected cinemas across the UK, distributed by Pulse Films. For more information, visit www.whoisdayanicristal.com