Sundance Review: Who is Dayani Cristal?


Black Adidas, beige khakis, and a Spanish prayer in pocket. Another immigrant lays dead in the Sonora Desert — the 20 minute drive turned deadly walk that separates Arizona from the southern border.

Who is Dayani Cristal? unravels the tale of one man who represents the 100+ migrants that die every year trying to cross the border. In hearing his story, a surprising revelation is made: Americans and migrants seem to agree that money is worth more than a migrant’s life. We both do what we do and feel how we feel because we value money over life. That’s a powerful idea that is buried under sloppy editing.

Who is Dayani Cristal?
Director: Marc Silver
Rating: NR
Country: UK
Release Date: January 17, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)

It’s easy to have sympathy for those who have less than you, yet it’s hard to have sympathy with those we imagine to have nothing. Immigration is a hard issue to discuss and it’s one that Who is Dayani Cristal? handles with the grace of an armless football player. Luckily, the presented argument of opening borders to Central American immigrants plays second fiddle to a much more engrossing presentation of how an migrant gets from over there to right here. It’s a journey of death and fear, but one of hope and adventure, as well.

Dayani Cristal? is one-half documentary, one-half fictional drama that follows Gael García Bernal as he interacts what seem to be non-actors. While both could be fine full length features on their own, it’s the dramatic storytelling that kept my interest. The idea behind blending these two methods is that they complement each other (which they do) but they don’t flow well.

A lot of this has to do with editing. Hearing interviews from the dead migrant’s family and friends conveys who he was in life. Then we cut to Bernal, who is retracing his journey, showing that death was around every corner: falling off a train, gun down by a gang, dehydration, hypothermia, mugged and shot at gun point for his $1,500 reserved for a border smuggler, etc. Learning about the 50+ day trek that an migrant goes through is fascinating. The filmmaking and Bernal’s presence really make it feel real.

The documentary side suffers from lingering a bit too long on subjects. At first, it seems like the camera is admiring this migrant’s simple life back home — a life where he was loved and respected — but then it seems to just pity him. The documentary part also follows the people searching for and documenting dead migrants in Arizona. Their work is  interesting, but why include their stances on immigration that confuses the whole direction of the film? Instead of being about what one man sacrifices, it temporarily shifts focus to why and how we should treat our border. It’s subject matter that could suit a full-fledged documentary, but sandwiched in here, it comes across as shallow  and disrespectful to the man that the film is paying tribute to.

I got some food for thought out of Who is Dayani Cristal, but I’m still not sure what it wanted me to get out of it.