“Who is Dayani Cristal?” has its Wisconsin premiere on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1308 W. Dayton St. Not rated, 1:25, three stars out of four. FREE!
Talk about illegal immigration, and you’re debating an issue. Talk about an immigrant — a person — and the discussion changes.
Director Marc Silver understands this dynamic well in his earnest documentary “Who is Dayani Cristal?” which does spark discussion about illegal immigration, but does so by looking at the life of one Guatemalan man’s long, tragic journey north.
His body was found in the parched Arizona desert. Carrying no forms of identification (immigrants are encouraged not to carry anything that can identify them on their long journey), he’s a mystery to local law enforcement authorities. The only real identifying mark on him is a tattoo on his stomach: “Dayani Cristal.”
But he’s one mystery of many — the number of immigrants dying in the Arizona desert has increased tenfold in the last decade. The reason? Immigration authorities have beefed up enforcement (including that notorious wall) in California and Texas, reasoning that immigrants won’t risk crossing the Arizona desert (nicknamed “the corridor of death”) in between. It turns out they have tragically misjudged what people won’t do to provide for their families.
As the empathetic forensic investigators study the man’s remains and work with Central American authorities to try and figure out his identity, the film tries to figure out who he was from a very different perspective. The well-known actor Gael Garcia Bernal (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “No”) retraces Cristal’s long journey to America, starting in the streets of Guatemala.
This is a very risky idea in a film — dangerous for a celebrity to presume that he can understand another man’s life by copying it, camera crew in tow. It’s hard not to be distracted with questions about the entire process — Can the other immigrants see the cameras? Do they know who Bernal is?
But Bernal doesn’t try to impersonate Cristal, and approaches the experience with honesty and humility. The most arresting part of the journey is a long ride on top of a train snaking its way for hundreds of miles through Mexico (familiar to those who have seen the drama “Sin Nombre”). It’s a harrowing journey — the immigrants, their life savings in their pockets, are often easy prey for Mexican gangs — but Bernal confesses to feeling a kinship with the other immigrants on the journey, even though he can leave at any time.
Finally, the film’s forensic and emotional strands connect up, and we learn the true identity of Cristal — a 29-year-old Guatemalan man with three children, the youngest with leukemia. Yes, his journey was foolhardy, and illegal, and fatal. But, faced with the same limited options, what would you do?
“Who is Dayani Cristal?” is an often beautiful film, this personal story playing out against a vast landscape of deserts and forests. And it’s intentions are unquestionably noble and sincere. The blend of documentary and fiction may be discomfiting to some, but it works to bring some small measure of dignity and empathy to a man and his desperate journey. It makes it hard to go back to immigration as just a political debate.