Who Is Dayani Cristal?

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


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  • ★★★½ review by Rakestraw on Letterboxd

    A well meaning documentary from Marc Silver and Gael Garcia Bernal as they search for the identity of an anonymous body found in the Arizona desert; the only clue being the words Dayani and Cristal tattooed on the man's chest.

    The documentary is a bit scattershot as it follows the sheriff's department, the medical examiner's office, various consulates, and for some reason or another Bernal feels the need to cast himself as the unknown tattooed man, retracing his journey to the US. This decision is the film's greatest flaw. I understand what their going for here but it seemed unnecessary to have Bernal play the man (complete with fake tattoos).

    Just retrace his journey. That's fine, but there's no need for Bernal to showcase his acting chops in a serious documentary about immigration. To make matters worse...when retracing certain aspects of the mystery man's arduous journey the film-makers insultingly focus the camera, in close-up, on the contemplative reaction expressions on Bernal's face instead of the people and the places this documentary is trying to spotlight.

    Overall, a solid documentary about immigration running concurrently with a highly emotional personal story of one man's excursion to the US. Unfortunately, you just have to also deal with Bernal nudging into the proceedings every so often to show you how the story is effecting him.

  • ★★★★½ review by The Spork Guy on Letterboxd

    Having missed this film's screening at the San Diego Latino Film Festival this year, I was sure to see it at my next chance. Thank you Netflix, for your lovely inclusion of this film to your instant stream line up. Well, I had nothing to go by but a trailer, so I hoped this was to live up to whatever expectations I never had. Who Is Dayani Cristal? is a documentary on the harsh elements migrants much endure when immigrating from Latin America to the US border, most notably the Arizona State border. The film is separated in 2 halves; 1 half traditional documentary featuring professionals in the immigration and medical fields, and the 2nd half being a narrative reenactment of our primary subject's final days as portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal.

    On the subject of "final days", as I said previously, the film opens to the border patrol as they investigate a corpse found alone the southern Arizona desert. This is the corpse of an immigrant who failed to make it to his desired point B. No one knows who he is, he has no identification on hand and no other migrants were on hand to direct the patrol workers toward any of these answers. All we have to go by is a mysterious tattoo on the man's chest, that reads; "Dayani Cristal". Thus, the film begins to document the investigation into who this man was, based on limited resources. We gradually learn many things about this one man out of many, who sadly share a similar fate with an alarmingly fast rate of fellow travelers joining them daily. As the investigation follows suit, we see the theme of humanity encompass the entire film. This was breath of fresh air, as this film is not so much a political film as it is a humanitarian observation. Not once are the ideas of pro, or anti-immigration brought up. Filmmaker Marc Silver was obviously not interested in starting a debate, but rather shining a light on something we don't hear on the news about these people. How often they die on the way over.

    We also get interviews with people who knew this man in life, who's name was Yohan. His friends, to his father, to his wife... and lastly, his children. The father of 3 kids sadly died on the way to America in order to provide for them one day. This day was never seen by he or anyone else it was intended for. A tragedy that lingers throughout the film from the start. In order to separate the film's non-fiction material, the film will enter into a reenactment segment starring and narrated by Bernal. As usually, we get a terrific, if minimal, performance by the actor. He not only imitates Yohan's mannerisms and personality, but actually travels the exact same path he took up until his untimely death. This includes the same restaurants he ate at, the same methods of crossing bodies of water, as well as hitiching rides atop freight trains. The authenticity for the story being told in these portions are sky high, and was very much appreciated upon my viewing, considering most reenactment docs are easily hit or miss.

    In order to close out this review, I will say that on the technical side of things, this film is absolutely gorgeous. Every shot they obtained for this feature was taken with care and you can tell this as truth. They went above and beyond as to make the visuals like a wonderful painting, to let us escape a bit while we explore a real life tragedy. The editing is also on point, seamlessly jumping back and forth between non-fiction and narrative portions, giving each just enough time before either become stale or irrelevant its current topic. This all makes for a highly enjoyable and extremely touching movie experience. A film that truly sees illegal immigrants as humans, but doesn't push any type of agendas beyond that. Simply observational documentation at it's most innocent. And yes, the answer if who Dayani Cristal is will be answered by the end. And I couldn't help but feel a bit of moisture coming from my eye sockets shortly after.

    - The Spork Guy

  • ★★★★ review by Juan Bacaro on Letterboxd

    "C.S.I." conoce a "La jaula de oro".

    "Who is Dayani Cristal?" es un documental desolador que además transita la ficción mientras relata los posibles nodos para restaurar el recorrido de un joven que ha sido encontrado muerto en medio del desierto de Arizona. Y esto es solo el comienzo.

    Mientras por un lado se documenta la rigurosa y científica reconstrucción de los hechos, por el otro se narra de forma semi-actuada todo el trayecto hipotético de esta víctima anónima (a la cual solo se le reconoce un tattoo que dice "Dayani Cristal"). En esta fase Gael García B. protagoniza. Por eso, supongo, el documental reconoce a dos directores, siendo Marc Silver el principal.

    Abrumador caso de la vida real que es solo uno entre miles. Es un documental de formidable fotografía y que ha sido rodado y contado de forma impecable. Aparte, está espléndidamente musicalizado.

    Sin embargo, como no todo brilla, siento que "Who is Dayani Cristal?" patina en varios aspectos, quizás más de tipo ideológico, como pienso es el plan.

    Por momentos, el relato se convierte en una editorial (con todo su derecho) y da crédito a estos dramáticos procesos del migrante voluntario/forzado casi como si "ilegalidad" y "heroísmo" fuesen sinónimos. Lo que se puede interpretar (de hecho, lo dejan bastante claro) es que la pobreza y la bondad van de la mano, cuando no necesariamente tiene que ser así. Me parece el discurso anticapitalista típico que nace a partir de la minusvalía y del sufrimiento.

    Por supuesto, en medio de la fisura se deja ver la crítica (o más bien, la denuncia) a la gigante muralla limítrofe. Se nos quiere hacer ver que es precisamente este muro "gringo" el victimario y es aquí entonces cuando se monta a los hombros del espectador la pesada carga de la culposidad insistente ante tan trágicas consecuencias. E incluso, hasta de sus causas.

    La tesis sería que: la inmigración ilegal no es tan nociva ni tan "ilegal" y que el sistema capitalista es el gran villano deshumanizado. No estoy del todo de acuerdo. Muy reduccionista.

    De todas formas, la película obtiene de mi parte un gran respeto. Lo considero uno de los mejores documentales que he visto en 2014; posiblemente el más valiente y uno de los más tristes en varios años. Aunque sobrentendidamente invita a la lucha, la comprensión y a la colaboración en estas vulnerabilidades. Más que ayudar a abrir los ojos, estimula a apuntar mejor la mirada y prestar más atención.

    Aun así "Who is Dayani Cristal?" apela más a los sentimientos y a lo emocional, siendo benevolentemente poético, algo que debería competir con el anális de la raíz de las circunstancias o, al menos, con algún ápice racional del asunto. Peca de unilateral al no dar mucha cabida a la otra cara de la moneda (o de la muralla).

  • ★★★½ review by starr 🚀 on Letterboxd

    listen...some parts felt embarrassingly staged and gael’s recreation of the border crossing could’ve been done better (if it should’ve been done at all) BUT i am still sitting here crying like a baby at 1:30am so. there’s that

  • ★★★★ review by Ben Smith on Letterboxd

    “Migrants are not a threat, they are an opportunity” – these are the words of Padre Alejandro Solalinde, a priest who founded a refugee centre on the border between Mexico and the US to offer support and a final prayer to those desperate souls from the Central and South Americas who have saved every penny for the slim chance of earning a living north of the border. A willing blue-collar workforce who want nothing more than an honest day's work – but the journey is not only illegal, but perilous. If you aren’t caught by Border Patrol and deported, you can be kidnapped and robbed of your savings, fall from the rickety Mexican ‘Beast’ train or collapse in the vast desert on the way to California. In this film, the padre is visited by Gael Garcia Bernal as he traces the steps of an unknown young man whose decomposing corpse was discovered in the scorched Arizona desert with the words ‘Dayani Cristal’ tattooed on his chest. With this enticing mystery Bernal and director Marc Silver tell a gripping story of personal hardship, exploring the sheer tragedy of immigration and America’s senseless approach to it.

    Shot with such impressive cinematography, it’s occasionally hard to distinguish documentary from dramatisation. At one end of the story Bernal sketchily embodies the unknown man taking his fateful journey, while meeting his family and other travellers. In tandem, the Arizona Sheriff's department attempts to identify the body and trace his roots. What could conceivably have become exploitative in the extreme is treated with such an honest and matter-of-fact approach the tragic story retains its dignity throughout. It's a powerful study of immigration that isn’t over-sentimental about its singular subject – who is a John Doe for the most part. He represents every soul who has befallen the same fate in the quest for work.

    As Bernal floats happily on home-made rafts between the border of Mexico and Honduras, with no patrol, checkpoints or passports, he narrates “Maybe all borders should be like this?” Wishful thinking, but Who is Dayani Cristal? isn’t attempting to offer solutions – it’s simply a startling presentation of the facts, lent accessibility for those new to the subject by a compelling narrative structure and the fragile, natural presence of Bernal at its centre. The film is at its most unforgettable in its sober treatment of the harrowing details – footage of Border Patrol collecting unidentified human remains from the sand, to be filed away in an endless archive, with little resources available to discover their identities. Presented with a cinematic scale that allows the subject a mournful, reflective tone, every moment of the process carries the weight it deserves.

    As the film fades out with an astonishing aerial shot of the endless miles of rust coloured border fence splicing the imperceptibly different barren scrublands of America and Mexico, the hugely moving lingering thought is the monumental futility of it all – a system that places laws and protocol above human life.

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