Marc Silver’s Who Is Dayani Cristal? attempts to cut through the political rhetoric of the raging debate on illegal immigration debate in the United States. It does so by putting a human face on the issue through an in-depth look at one particular unfortunate victim who was found dead in the Sonora Desert in Arizona after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Unlike the many anonymous dead bodies populating the state’s Pima County morgue, this corpse had “Dayani Cristal” tattooed on his chest; the film, then, becomes, in part, a procedural, as the filmmakers detail investigative forensic efforts to try to identify this body and locate his relatives. But Silver is also interested in uncovering the circumstances of this man’s life that led him to undertake this life-threatening journey in the first place, and as informative, revealing, and occasionally poignant as some of the unearthed revelations are, the documentary is ultimately hampered by a level of self-congratulation that nearly undoes its effectiveness as an activist polemic.
Though Silver gets sole directing credit for the film, this is really a collaboration with Gael García Bernal, who not only co-produced the film, but also appears on screen as he retraces this dead immigrant’s steps, thus getting a sense of the difficulties that people like him face in trying to find a better life for themselves or their families against life-threatening odds. “I will never understand the extent of the dangers he faced,” he admits early on in gravely hushed voiceover, “I can only try to retrace his steps and see where they take me.” But while Bernal’s attempt at empathy is admirable in theory, in practice this turns out to be a classic case of star power distracting us from the film’s deeper issues by drawing undue attention to the star himself.
Though Bernal engages with Honduran, Guatemalan, and Mexican locals, some of whom have themselves tried repeatedly to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, in retracing his subject’s travels, most of the time we’re not allowed to see these interview subjects by themselves unless Bernal is seen or heard alongside them. Surely, these sequences wouldn’t have lost any of their impact had Bernal been less prominently featured in them; furthermore, one can’t help but wonder if the film would have had any less of a sobering impact without Bernal’s on-screen presence at all. Apparently, we’re not only also meant to contemplate difficult questions about U.S. immigration policy, but are also being asked to applaud a well-known movie star for exuding genuine social awareness. For all its good intentions, Bernal’s often-oppressive presence in Who Is Dayani Cristal? is enough to cast a damagingly narcissistic pall over the project as a whole.