An unidentified body is found in the Sonoran desert in Pima County, Arizona under the heat of an August sun—the body of a migrant, traveling north along a treacherous and uncertain path to the United States. The man has almost nothing with him but a small paper prayerbook and a prominent but enigmatic tattoo across his chest with two words: Dayani Cristal.
This dramatic set-up serves as the frame for “Who Is Dayani Cristal?”, which premiered last Thursday during the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival, an unusual film that functions almost as three documentaries on the same subject presented in tandem. The first focuses on the efforts of the medical examiners and investigators in Tucson who painstakingly sift through a vanishingly small set of clues to determine the man’s identity; the second follows actor Gael García Bernal—who also produced the film—as he retraces the man’s journey from his native Honduras to the United States; and the third features interviews with the family whom the man, Dilcy Yohan Sandres Martínez, left in his native Honduras for a chance at greater prosperity and opportunity in the U.S.
The fact that these three distinct narratives are intertwined into a single whole makes “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” an engaging and unconventional documentary. When we meet Yohan’s family early in the film, we know implicitly that the truth of his identity will be uncovered, even though we have just begun to meet the American and Honduran officials who will make that happen. The interplay between Yohan’s family in Honduras, the investigators in Arizona and Bernal’s experience traveling northward makes “Dayani Cristal” an alternately immersive and instructive film, with a story that could easily have been presented as a straightforward, lineal procedural turning into a more philosophical exploration of the social, political and economic challenges of migration that not only tells but also shows.
But it also makes the entire film a bit inscrutable, especially since the Bernal element follows two distinct tracks that are never reconciled, or indeed even explicitly acknowledged as at odds with one another: at the beginning of the film, we see Bernal, his chest emblazoned with the words ‘Dayani Cristal,’ playing Yohan, the man whose body we will follow from the Sonoran desert to Tucson and eventually back to Honduras. But for the rest of the movie, we follow Bernal as himself, retracing the steps of Yohan’s journey and experiencing first-hand the life of a migrant.
To be sure, the process which led to the creation of the film is indeed remarkable: the film’s creative team, comprised of Bernal’s producing partners Lucas Ochoa and Thomas Benski, director Marc Silver and screenwriter Mark Monroe, who wrote the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” set out four years ago to examine the human tragedy behind the deaths of migrants in the desert Southwest, which have spiked almost tenfold spike in the last decade.
Silver embedded himself with the search and rescue unit of the Pima County’s sheriff and accompanied them to film the recovery of bodies from the desert, including the trip during which Yohan’s body was retrieved, while Bernal and the other filmmakers made the same trip from Honduras to Arizona that so many migrants have. In one particularly effective scene, Bernal and the crew travel on the roof of a train as it snakes through Guatemala and Mexico, putting themselves in harm’s way but providing an immersive, compelling look at the hope and fortitude required to set out on a journey that is in so many ways filled with uncertainty.
When I spoke to Ochoa and Benski by phone from Sundance two days after the film’s premiere, they emphasized that their aim was to make a film that wasn’t told from a Western perspective, but rather one that embedded the audience in the experience of the Yohan’s life. The film, they told me, was an attempt to move away from the often emotionally and politically-charged rhetoric surrounding immigration and focus on one man’s personal tragedy. Watching the film, the passion that Bernal and the other filmmakers feel about this subject is palpable.
But ultimately, “Dayani Cristal” is about too many things at once: in presenting a multiplicity of angles both on the story of Yohan himself and the larger problems of migration in general, it diffuses itself to the point of becoming muddled. Is this a film about one man who loved his family deeply and risked a journey to improve their lot that would lead to his death? Is it a film about Gael Garcia Bernal’s experience following in that man’s footsteps? Or is it a film about the efforts of those well-intentioned American officials and their counterparts in the governments of nations across the Americas to identify the men and women who die trying to make their way to the U.S.?
These questions are part of a mystery that “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” does not solve. When the film’s eponymous question is finally answered, the revelation doesn’t quite hit as hard as was probably intended. In the end, that’s probably because it wasn’t really the central question of the film in the first place.