Who Is Dayani Cristal?: Sundance Review

Who is Dayani Cristal?

United Kingdom (Director: Marc Silver)

An anonymous body in the Arizona desert sparks the beginning of a real-life human drama. The search for its identity leads us across a continent to seek out the people left behind and the meaning of a mysterious tattoo. World Premiere.

A deeply moving doc finds a new way of making the immigration debate personal.

Gael Garcia Bernal's documentary retraces the steps of an undocumented immigrant who died anonymously in the Arizona desert.

PARK CITY -- More elegy than mystery, Who Is Dayani Cristal? also has an unavoidable political thrust: There is no way to seek the identity of a dead migrant in the Sonora Desert without discussing why men and women are compelled to enter the United States illegally, and how our politics have forced them to do so in increasingly dangerous ways. Through a novel combination of investigation and quasi-reenactment, Marc Silver and Gael Garcia Bernal have found a haunting way of telling their story that respects its particulars while illuminating the ways in which the story is far too common. It should be required viewing for anyone involved in making or enforcing border policy, not to mention the blowhards who have made a cottage industry out of debating it.

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The film's graceful editing sustains a structure more complicated than it feels. Its three parallel strands are told from wildly divergent viewpoints -- ranging from complete ignorance of the subject's identity to a kind of imagined omniscience -- but their juxtaposition never jostles. Instead, the picture is so cohesive it belies what must have been an agonizing wait-and-see production.

Having become intrigued by the growing number of dead bodies found in Arizona every summer, director Silver started tagging along with investigators, eventually filming their recovery of a body with "Dayani Cristal" tattooed across his chest. Following this cadaver back to the morgue, the film meets the people -- from local medical examiners to employees of foreign consulates -- who spend their days trying to find names for corpses.

While we follow the sad and often grisly procedural details of the case (the body's desiccated hands, for instance, must be chopped off and rehydrated in order to obtain workable fingerprints), we soon begin hearing from the loved ones this body belongs to. The man's wife, brother, and parents talk of his life in Honduras and the reasons he left. We learn of the two-year-old son with leukemia, the debts, the need to earn more money -- but certain identifying details are withheld from us while we watch investigators do a seemingly impossible job.

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Meanwhile, Bernal (a producer on the film) is appearing in scenes that "retrace his steps" -- following a route from Honduras through Guatemala and Mexico to Arizona, using the skeleton of facts that eventually emerged about the man's migration and fleshing out details along the way. Viewers will have seen fictionalized border crossings before, but this is something different and much richer: We ride with scores of other migrants atop "La Bestia," a train cutting North through Mexico, offering stunning scenery and the constant fear of death; we pause to gather strength at the "Brothers of the Road" shelter, where a Mexican priest gives food and comfort to those about to risk their lives; most important, we speak with men who are actually in the midst of this uncertain journey.

Exceptional cinematography by Silver and Pau Esteve Birba does justice both to the grim aftermath of this immigrant's tale and to the dreams that set it in motion. A framing device, using the text of a "Migrant's Prayer" pamphlet found in the subject's pocket, is achingly poignant while suggesting that, whatever the laws of man decree, God recognizes the need to leave one land for another -- and perhaps even insists that the journey be undertaken.

Production Company: Pulse Films

Director: Marc Silver

Screenwriter: Mark Monroe

Producers: Lucas Ochoa, Thomas Benski, Gael García Bernal

Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Lilly Hartley, Jeffrey Tarrant, Jess Search, Teddy Leifer, Marc Silver

Directors of photography: Marc Silver, Pau Esteve Birba

Music: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman

Editors: Martin Singer, James Smith-Rewse

Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

No rating, 84 minutes