Film (86 mins), 2012
Directed by Marc Silver, Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs, Toronto 27 April 2013
Review by Amber Landgraff
This FUSE article from issue 36-4 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure.
The documentary Who is Dayani Cristal? follows staff at the Pima County morgue in Arizona as they go through the process of identifying the body of a migrant worker who died attempting to illegally cross into the US. Unlike many of the other bodies that end up in the morgue, this particular body had a unique and identifiable tattoo across the chest which read “Dayani Cristal.” This was the first clue in the search for his identity, and in the journey to return him to his family.
With immigration a hot-button topic in the US, focus is often placed on the image of the border wall between Mexico and America, the best protection against the so-called never-ending threat of nameless, faceless enemies sneaking into the States. In mainstream discourse, migrants attempting the crossing are too often discussed in the abstract and en masse, while the individual reasons that drive them to undertake the dangerous crossing in spite of the risks are boiled down to the cliché of the American Dream.
The documentary plays an important role in bringing real attention to the sheer number of deaths that the war on immigration has caused over the last decade; over 200 unidentified bodies are found each year, many of which will never be identified. Policies around cremating unidentified bodies had to be changed in 2005 because there wasn’t enough space to store such large numbers of unidentified remains. The result is that people who are dehumanized in life remain dehumanized in death, scores of John Does who will never make it home. By focusing on the man with the tattoo, and following the process of finding out who he was and what led to his body being left in the desert, the film does a masterful job of providing an intimate glimpse of the tattooed man (nick- named “Yohan”) and his life.
What stayed with me most are the interviews with Yohan’s family — his wife, brother, mother and father. The unconventional format of the documentary places these interviews alongside the investigation, so that the audience knows all along that he will eventually be identified. These interviews reveal much about Yohan long before the audience ever sees his face, from descriptions provided by the people who love him, including how he courted his wife and his relationships with his mother, father, brother and three young children. What emerges is a picture of a loving husband and father, who made the difficult decision to leave his family because of the circumstances of his youngest son suffering from cancer. The film follows the process of Yohan’s body being returned to Honduras, and it is only then that the audience finally sees his face, as family members place his photograph on the coffin during his memorial.
The moment that Yohan’s face is finally shown is also the moment in which the meaning of his tattoo is revealed to the audience in voiceover: Dayani Cristal is his daughter’s name, tattooed across his heart. This narrative choice is significant, as the film consistently asserts the importance of Yohan’s personhood, and builds audience investment in the particularity of Yohan’s story and his return home. Yohan’s brother argues that much money is invested in the wall, yet the wall is only ever going to be a dead investment. He questions what could be accomplished if the same money was instead invested in people. With so many related deaths every year, this is a simple and powerful question — and a strong statement in support of immigration reform — that asks how many lives have to be lost before we begin to see it as too much to lose. This is also highlighted by the fact that Yohan’s body was found only a thirty-minute car ride away from Tucson; if the crossings hadn’t been made more difficult by the federal government’s crackdowns, which included more investment in high-tech surveillance equipment and building harder- to-cross fences, Yohan’s death could have been prevented.
The third narrative thread in the documentary is a re- creation of Yohan’s journey as undertaken by Gael García Bernal. While some reactions to the documentary criticize this re-creation for not accurately capturing the reality of crossing illegally — how could it possibly capture the experience with a well-known actor and a camera crew? — this complaint partially comes from the overall cinematic quality of the film. Following the Hot Docs screening, several questions were asked about the veracity of García Bernal’s journey, whether the people seen and interviewed were also actors and what kind of crew was required for the filming. Director Marc Silver pointed out that despite the stunning cinematic quality of the film, it was actually made with a very small crew, and often shot with only one camera, operated by Silver. While this recreation may seem an awkward choice, García Bernal is intended to function as an audience surrogate, providing a stand-in for an audience who will likely never undergo such a trip, in order to see and feel what the experience would be like from the position of an insider rather than an objective observer. Given the film’s goal of humanizing migrants, this becomes a striking, if potentially unsuccessful, choice.
Amber Landgraff is a Toronto-based curator and writer. She has an MFA in Criticism and Curatorial Practice and is one of the organizers of FEAST Toronto, an ongoing community dinner and microfunding event. She writes, often about art, politics and labour, for both FUSE and C Magazine.
Image credit: Migrants resting at the “Brother of the Road” shelter, Ixtepec, Mexico. Film still, Who is Dayani Cristal? Film (86 mins), 2012. Directed by Marc Silver.