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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Gael García Bernal Offers A Humanizing Look At Immigration In The Intriguing Yet Uneven New Doc, 'WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL?'

It seems like every day there's a new discussion on U.S. immigration policy--what's wrong with it, why it's needed, what it means for the economy, among other bullet points. But very little attention is paid to the people most affected by immigration--the migrant workers, families and those seeking the ever elusive American dream. That's where WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? comes in.

Co-created and starring Gael García Bernal, this new documentary goes beyond the institution of immigration to reveal a more personal story about an unidentified body found in the Sonora Desert in Arizona known as "the corridor of death." At the beginning of the film, we don't know who this person is, where they came from or how he died. All we know is that he has a distinct tattoo etched across his chest that reads, "Dayani Cristal." But, little by little, the mystery is peeled away as we follow the official investigation to uncover the truth about this John Doe, cut through the political tape, and humanize this nameless face. 

As we get closer to unraveling the story, director Marc Silver cuts through the legal and forensic process with Bernal's more intimate scenes. The actor embeds himself with a group of migrant workers who share their own struggles to cross the border--leaving their families behind, scraping up the money, and battling extreme weather conditions and desert vultures. In doing so, we get a sense of what it is like to live in their shoes, embody their hopes and face their fears. Even the little details, like having to pay $1500 to the smuggler, become far more significant as we take their journey with them. 

But while the film has some truly poignant moments, especially when we hear more from the family John Doe left behind in their own words, the film still struggles to find a singular voice. Sometimes it highlights governmental challenges and the indifference toward these particular migrant cases. And then we hear from the men Bernal has inserted himself with. But where the film succeeds is when it answers the question in the title: Who is Dayani Cristal? Why should we care about him and what is the impact of his story?

You can argue that "Dayani" or this John Doe represents the anonymous migrant worker, the man whose story never gets told. But the film doesn't spend enough time on him. Rather, the film's views are wide and unfocused, highlighting smaller elements like the importance of religion in the migrant community and dire governmental statistics, which present a wavering exploration of the issue that makes it hard to resonate at times. It's clear that Bernal and Silver don't want to sway the audience's opinion, but in taking that stance the film loses some of its strength.

The heartbreaking moments in WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? come when our John Doe's family speak to the camera, revealing the romance between him and his wife, how much he loved his children and more about his childhood, do we get a more humanizing portrait. Though these moments are checkered throughout the film, they are most effective at the end when their voices are the last heard. It's a shame that the film doesn't spend more time with them.

Rating: B- (*** out of *****)

Watch the trailer:

WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? will release this Friday in New York City and Miami.


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