Gael Garcia Bernal Retraces a Migrant's Steps in "Dayani Cristal"

A kind of forensic memorial, “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” pieces together the background of a Central American migrant worker who died trying to cross into the United States.


It could be a scene from paradise, were it not for the many tiny figures giving context to what is really happening here. A train snakes slowly across a plain in northern Mexico, the low sun casting a golden glow. The roof of the train bears the forms of several people, moving gingerly across the tops of the wagons as they hitch a ride to the train’s destination: the US border.

The human cost of the gaping economic disparity which causes so many to head for the US is addressed in Who is Dayani Cristal?, winner of the Cinematography Award for World Cinema Documentary at 2013’s Sundance Festival. Co-produced by and starring Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, the film centers on the case of the body of a young man found in Arizona, one of 6,000 dead migrants found on US soil in the last decade.

The only clue to the man’s identity was a tattoo of the words 'Dayani Cristal' across his chest.

The narrative follows Gael Garcia Bernal as he retraces the migrant's journey, crossing Mexico on foot, by lorry, or clinging to the top of a moving train.

“It was obviously a local story to the US/Mexico border,” says the film's British director Marc Silver, “but we felt it was also a story of migration and barriers of entry that are put up around the world. We have the equivalent in the Mediterranean Sea with migrants dying travelling from North Africa to Europe. The same thing goes on between Indonesia and Australia. Even though on the surface it’s a US/Mexico story, the DNA of the film is globally relevant.”


The discovery of Dayani Cristal’s body was the first of many such instances filmed by Silver while following search and rescue teams on the US side of the border. How, as a director, did he deal with such harrowing subject matter?

“I’m not interested in being detached as a filmmaker,” he says. “I respect the power of what you can do with images and I didn’t feel the need to be balanced regarding the immigration reform debate. What I thought was lacking was the humanization and the increased visibility of the subject. Most people aren’t aware that 6,000 migrants have been found dead inside the US. My role was to amplify those unheard voices along the border.”

How did the other travelers react to Garcia Bernal’s presence?

“Most of them recognized him but they weren’t star-struck or anything. All we really did was ask for advice, if they could guide us and educate us across the landscape.”

But is someone in Garcia Bernal’s position able to provide an accurate representation of what migrants face?

“We tried to craft the film so it was poetically clear that Gael was saying ‘All I can do is follow in the footsteps of this person.’ This is what we wanted to create rather than an overt reconstruction.”


One of the main contributors to Who is Dayani Cristal? is Robin Reineke, co-founder and executive director of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights which uses forensic science to identify the nameless dead found in the Arizona desert. “We’re frustrated that this continues to happen every single year,” says Reineke. "From 1990 to 1999, the average number of human remains found in southern Arizona was twelve per year. From 2000 through 2013, the average was 165, a more than tenfold increase."

"The expenditures on surveillance and walls and policing are massive. Private companies are profiting from this to a phenomenal extent. What happens is that the parts [of the border] which can be patrolled are heavily fortified, while the parts which can’t be patrolled are left open. So that’s where the migrants go. The border didn’t use to be this deadly and it doesn’t have to be this way."


Who is Dayani Cristal? opened on April 25 in select theaters.

Can anyone figure out whether he actually got the tattoo? Doesn't say in any story I've found.