Who is Dayani Cristal Review

Who is Dayani Cristal?

What do you do when you find a decomposing body in the Arizona desert, with nothing to identify it by but a tattoo and a prayer book?

This is the question which Marc Silver and Gael García Bernal pose in the striking new documentary, Who is Dayani Cristal?, and through which they explore the wider issue of perilous south-to-north migration on the American continent.

As it turns out, having the words ‘Dayani Cristal’ tattooed in bold letters across your chest is – in this context – actually a rather significant clue to your identity. Most of the bodies discovered in these parts don’t even have that.

And so, Silver and García Bernal follow the body from the desert to the morgue, and follow the process of its identification from a small team of forensic scientists in the US, to a jarringly vast sorting office in Mexico, where all the information that can be gleaned about a body is stored in the hope that someone will eventually come along to enquire about their missing loved one and will be able to identify them based on the baseball cap they happened to be wearing when they met their end.

It’s a tragic, a delicate, and a highly politicised situation. It’s a story which could have been all too easily fetishized by pathos and finger-pointing.

But Silver and García Bernal have handled it deftly.

They do not focus only on the deprivation of Latin Americans compared to their US neighbours, nor on demonising the US and the ravages of capitalism for those at the bottom of the food chain. Rather, they allude to these issues, and then move swiftly on to focus instead on the human side of the story.

Who was Dayani Cristal? Where did he come from? Why did he risk his life in this way?

And why are Latin Americans making this journey in increasing numbers even though mortality rates have shot up since tighter border controls were introduced along the Mexico-US border in 2000 and 2001?

In order to find the answers to these questions, Silver and García Bernal go to meet with Dayani Cristal’s family in Guatemala.

And then they set out on the same journey on which Dayani set out: across the Guatemala-Mexico border then up, up, up through Mexico to its border with the US, uncovering unanticipated perils along the way.

It’s not just the Arizona desert and inhumanitarian US policies which threaten them: migrants are easy prey for criminal gangs in Mexico because they carry no identification, in order to avoid deportation, and $1,500 in cash, to pay the smugglers’ fees.

García Bernal draws on his acting skills as he falls into the role of the migrant, chatting to comrades on the rooftop of a train, or in a hostel along the way. He improvises, puts himself in the migrant’s shoes, and imagines his own destination and his own story.

This adds to that wonderful glimpse of the human side of the story, away from the cold hard facts and political arguments.

And it serves to intersperse the narrative with life-affirming moments of companionship and camaraderie amongst the hordes of young men who are all in this together.

Who is Dayani Cristal? is an incredibly powerful story which explores the consequences of economic disparity and the aspirations of the emergent generations in the Global South.

In spite of tackling such weighty topics, it tells its story with grace, with nuance, and with humanity.

Prepare yourself to be utterly moved and awakened.

Stephanie Josine

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Dates ‘n stuff

July 2014