Who Is Dayani Cristal?


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Silver may succeed in pushing emotional buttons but its people's heads that need to be engaged in tackling this complex issue, not just their hearts."

Illegal migration documentary Who Is Dayani Cristal? is disappointing, which is a pity because the premise of using a single person's story to illustrate the plight of many can be a very effective way of getting an audience to wake up to an issue - in this case, the fact that every year 200 people die trying to cross Arizona's Sonoran desert into America.

The nameless person in question here is a man who died with no personal effects on him, so that it fell to US investigators to try to identify him - as they do so many of these immigration victims - by a tattoo on his chest. This one reading 'Dayani Cristal'.

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In addition to 'recreating' the hunt for the name and family behind the mystery man, Gael Garcia Bernal - who also helped to produce the film - retraces the migrant's steps from Honduras, talking to other people chasing their own dreams of a better life along the way. A third and final segment of the film focuses on the John Doe's family.

This all sounds as though it should make for a gripping doc but despite some interesting observations from the team tasked with identifying bodies found in the desert, the film never really comes together. Director Marc Silver's time in TV is unfortunately all too evident in the way that certain points are recapped and laboured - as though he is anticipating ad breaks to come and the emotional build with the family feels manipulative and unnecessary.

Meanwhile Bernal, well-intentioned though he may be, serves as more of a distraction than an illustration. Although he dresses down for the part to ride a similar train to the one depicted so heart-wrenchily in Sin Nombre, he takes centre stage when we would rather be concentrating on the tales of the people who are driven to do this (For a more thorough audio examination of the motivations and perils faced by those who make the trek on The Beast, check out the World Service's Through The Valley Of Death).

It's also hard to tell where the re-enactment stops and reality starts, with Bernal's segments, in particular, far too formulaic and scripted - his presence somehow diminishes the very real dangers that migrants who choose to ride the train face.

The constant handwringing, coupled with a refusal to offer up any sort of solution to the problem also feels like a cop out. Silver may succeed in pushing emotional buttons but its people's heads that need to be engaged in tackling this complex issue, not just their hearts.

Reviewed on: 04 Sep 2013
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An anonymous body in the Arizona desert sparks the beginning of a real-life human drama.
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Director: Marc Silver

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal

Year: 2013

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: UK

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If you like this, try:

The Golden Dream
Sin Nombre