Tracing One Life, Lost In The Desert

Apr 25, 2014
Originally published on April 24, 2014 3:41 pm

Who Is Dayani Cristal? attempts to humanize the many who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border by focusing on just one: a corpse found in the lethal Arizona desert with the words "Dayani Cristal" tattooed on his chest. The documentary follows the models of several genres of fictional films: the forensic procedural, the road movie, the man-who-wasn't-there mystery.

The results are poignant, yet show the difficulties of applying fiction templates to true stories. To keep one of the twin narratives moving, director Marc Silver is required to reveal prematurely some information about the unidentified man, divulging bits of his back story to the viewer before the on-screen investigators have a clue who he is.

The second narrative follows Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, one of the movie's producers, on the migrant trail from Central America to the Mexico/Arizona border. (He rides atop a freight train, just like the migrants in the fictionalized Sin Nombre.)

Bernal is the narrator, but never mentions how his own journey was filmed. Were hidden cameras used? Did no one recognize the star of Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Motorcycle Diaries? Or did the people Bernal met play along with the movie star, thus themselves becoming actors in a sort of fiction?

Such questions are distracting and make Bernal's trip the less effective half of the movie. At least some of the people he meets, however, are clearly in roles they selected for themselves. "Poor people are the spiritual reserve of the world," says a priest who runs a shelter in Mexico where migrants can rest on their way from Honduras and Guatemala to Texas and California.

It's this cleric who introduces Bernal to "The Migrant's Prayer," lines from which the actor reads in voice-over at the film's beginning and end.

Less picturesque but just as affecting are the various bureaucrats — American, Mexican and Honduran — who attempt to identify the bodies and ship them back to grieving families. The procedures can be grisly: Desiccated hands are amputated from corpses and plumped with water in order to get better fingerprints. But there's no sense that the people responsible for such grim tasks have lost their empathy in the process.

"We are their family," says a woman from the Mexican Consulate, referring to the dead she seeks to ID. Arizona forensic anthropologist Dr. Bruce Anderson sadly notes that many indicators of illegal immigration have declined since the easy routes into the U.S. were blocked during the 1990s: "Crossings are down. Apprehensions are down. What's not down is deaths."

Most migrants slip across the border without ID, intentionally. Many are never identified and are cremated in the U.S., their remains locked into anonymous compartments in a columbarium.

Victims that ultimately can be named — because they have, say, a distinctive tattoo — are flown home to their families. It's only after death that American authorities give a measure of dignity to these strivers, men who sought to earn a better future for family members they love so much that they might inscribe their names near their hearts.

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