Movie a Day Blog knows that the definition of what constitutes a documentary film is shifting. No longer simply cinema verite or advocacy, documentary has become more personal, more idiosyncratic, and frankly, more interesting. Films such as Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL (2012), that actually cast actors to play her parents in a documentary about their relationship, was in the vanguard of the new non-fiction narrative.
So is WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? (2013), a fascinating blend of traditional documentary research and interviews, and bold re-creations starring producer/actor Gael Garcia Bernal, the individual undoubtedly responsible for getting the film made.
That said, British director-cinematographer Marc Silver delivers the goods, starting with a strong premise for a mystery. A body of an llegal immigrant is discovered in the Arizona desert, largely intact and bearing a distinctive tattoo in elaborate script across the man’s chest that spells out Dayani Cristal.The rest of the film is occupied by determining who he was and how he arrived at his solitary death in the desert.
That’s when Bernal enters the story, playing this mysterious man at the beginning, not the end of his journey to El Norte, where he hopes to earn money for better care for a son with lukemia, along with the daughter and wife he also left behind.
Silver alternates Bernal’s gradual journey northward, leaving his native Honduras, going through Guatemala, then Mexico, and finally clambering over the border fence into Arizona, with interviews with the family and friends of someone whose identity we do not yet know. Only gradually do we realize these disparate impressions are of the same man, the bearer of the tattoo.
It’s a little confusing at first, because everyone seems in on the truth but us in the audience. Silver does manage to build suspense and mystery around the identity of the victim, but it’s hard to empathize with a corpse, the principal rationale for the staged scenes.
A problem comes in the casting: Bernal is a gifted actor; I’ve never seen him give a bad performance, and he certainly doesn’t here. But he seems too upper-class for a farm laborer from rural Honduras, and his neutral Spanish accent is a dead give-away, according to my English-as-a-second-language-teaching wife.
Despite these flaws, DAYANI CRISTAL is continually engaging, and the various individuals who help identify remains of failed immigrants are given enough screen time to establish their personalities and the reasons they take on this sad and often frustrating job. Even more moving are the interviews with the dead man’s wife, father and mother.
The reality of loss of a valued husband, son and friend makes the usual statistics come vividly alive in the raw emotions people close to him express to Silver and his non-judgmental camera. He’s an excellent interviewer, and the voice-over narration is both informative and compelling.
Mark Monroe gets a written by credit, unusual for a documentary, and I presume he wrote both the narration and the narrative segments starring Bernal, the only actor credited, although his scenes ofen felt “directed” with chosen extras.
Still, DAYANI CRISTAL did not offend my more traditional documentary sensibility because it felt innovative and brave in humanizing a usually cut-and-dried story of naive travelers waylaid by crooked coyotes, kidnappers or robbers. None of those hazards prove to be the culprit in this documentary. Sometimes someone’s death is just pure bad luck.