There have been so many harrowing and well-researched fictional movies about illegal immigrants entering the USA through Mexico, that it is odd to see a relatively light-weight documentary about the same subject. Who Is Dayani Cristal?, produced and directed by Marc Silver, takes as its angle, the mystery of a dead body found in the Sonora desert in Arizona in August 2010.
The film features Mexico’s most famous actor today, Gael Garcia Bernal, who co-produces and serves as a semi-embedded reporter, attempting – in 82 minutes — to replicate the journey from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico that the dead man would have taken. The filmmakers call this ‘one of the most dangerous journeys on earth’ and by the end, the target country, the USA, is left shouldering the blame.
This idea of getting into the statistics and facts through a mystery is a good one, but ultimately it is not very mysterious. Basic forensics, South American and Mexican embassy detective work and a poster campaign reveal the man to be Dilcy Yohan a man from Honduras desperate for cash to pay for his son’s medical treatment.
What is interesting is that Dayani Cristal was not the dead man’s name, but the name of his young daughter which he had tattooed on his chest. The work of returning the (mostly) men to their families is complicated by the fact that most illegal immigrants do their best to disguise their real identities. This is the case for first timers and those trying for the third or fourth time who already have a record.
Gael Garcia Bernal, travelling with a skeletal crew, does not disguise himself, and instead, the filmmakers asked the immigrants and volunteers at the Catholic shelters built up along The Beast’s tracks to be in the film. Since nothing is going to happen to Bernal, and he is so well-known, the seriously truncated journey is pretty dull and everyone is on his best behaviour.
Although the film purports to take us on the dead man’s journey, we do not encounter the dangers from drugs, criminal gang attacks, kidnapping, and arrest on the one hand, or the camaraderie and romance from the shared experience of riding ‘the beast’ – the train that travels up the spine of Mexico, on the other hand.
The film features interviews with various officials, including a woman critical of the USA’s heavy exclusionist policies – this despite the fact that 40.4 million people not born in the USA currently call it home. We learn about the rising number of similar deaths in the desert after the safe and heavily trafficked entry points were secured, although there is no mention of the very real problem of drug smuggling.
The interesting point about counter-productive US trade policies favouring the USA, and driving disadvantaged farmers and traders from their countries, is glossed over in a minute. Instead, US Border Staff and immigrant officials are portrayed as cold-hearted for not just letting everyone in to join the 11 million unauthorised immigrants already in the USA.
Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer