A three pronged approach to uncovering the identity of an illegal immigrant’s corpse in the Arizona desert coalesce uneasily for a well-meaning message in Who is Dayani Cristal?, a project created by director Marc Silver and actor Gael Garcia Bernal. While Bernal’s name is an immeasurable asset to getting a project like this out there, his presence is about as equally detrimental to the success of the end result. Reenactments spliced with real time interview coverage get sewn together to varied effect in this depiction of the horrors faced by illegal immigrants due to increasingly difficult sanctions developed by the unfairly xenophobic US government. Its target audience will assumedly be wholeheartedly in agreement with the filmmakers’ agenda, though with a little luck, this will be seen by those blissfully ignorant of the unfortunate plight of those seeking the chance to seek better lives for themselves.
Since 2001, the increase in border patrol agents securing the southern border has increased nearly five-fold. In turn, the number of immigrant deaths has increased significantly. Focusing on one John Doe discovered in a stretch of Arizona desert known as “the corridor of death,” whose only identifiable marking is a tattoo on his chest that says ‘Dayani Cristal,” actor Gael Garcia Bernal decided to retrace the migrant trail from Central America. Plausibly, this may yield some kind of clues as to his actual identity. In reality, hundreds of bodies are found in the same fashion, many ending up in a similar fashion—a pile of bones in a bin. Meanwhile, director Marc Silver interviews the forensic examiners of the Pima County Morgue, a dedicated crew of individuals that explain the difficulty with identifying the bodies of illegal immigrants. Several key databases are off limits to those deemed illegal, therefore diminishing the chances of there being the proper resources allotted to assisting in this dilemma. Lastly, family members of the identified John Doe are interviewed, completing a portrait of a man attempting to make a better life for himself and his family by undergoing the dangerous trek to the United States.
Interviews with several members of the Pima County Morgue tend to be as fascinating as they are sometimes upsetting. Buckets of skulls and bones and dry erase boards with endless lists pertaining to bodies of the unknown are macabre and striking, and it’s generally these frames that prove to be Silver’s most successful. Likewise, one can’t help but be moved at interviews of the family of the lone dead man in question, especially realizing that each one of the dead, unidentified humans has most likely left behind loved ones forever wondering what happened.
It’s where the well-meaning Bernal gets atop the large train known as The Beast that Who Is Dayani Cristal? seems to derail a bit. Cinematography, meanwhile looks grand as it catches the landscape of the dangerous trek atop the train. Bernal comments on the sense of fraternity evident amongst the individuals that make this journey, yet one doubts that the actor and the camera crew are able to effectively catch a complete experience similar to those of the immigrants alongside them, something depicted in this fashion to much more startling effect in Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre. Here, the actor is merely a distracting presence, though one can’t deny that, along with Silver, the attempt to effectively engage its audience on the issue of immigration is clear, even if it’s not always successful.