Who Is Dayani Cristal?: Gael Garcia Bernal Traces Path of Migrant Worker Who Died in Arizona Desert

Democracy Now*

Dayani Cristal
Dayani Cristal

HAVANA TIMES – A new film featuring the Mexican film star Gael Garcia Bernal examines the story of a Honduran migrant who died in the Arizona desert in 2010. “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” begins when border police in Arizona discover the decomposing body of a migrant in the Sonoran Desert, in an area known as “the corridor of death.”

He has no identification, but has one distinguishing feature: A tattoo that reads “Dayani Cristal.” The film goes on to untangle the mystery of the migrant’s identity, his death and who — or what — is Dayani Cristal? We’re joined by the film’s director, Marc Silver.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City TV, from Utah. We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival, which is wrapping up this weekend. And we end today’s show looking at a new documentary featuring the Mexican film star, Gael García Bernal. It’s entitled Who Is Dayani Cristal?

The film begins when border police in Arizona discover the decomposing body of a migrant in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The man has died in an area known as the “Corridor of Death.” He has no identification, but he has one distinguishing feature: a tattoo that reads “Dayani Cristal.”

The film goes on to untangle the mystery of the migrant’s identity, his death, and who—or what—is Dayani Cristal. The documentary includes dramatic sequences with famed actor Gael García Bernal, who attempts to trace the steps of the dead migrant from his home in Honduras to the Arizona desert. In this clip, Bernal visits a church in the city of Altar in Mexico on the U.S.-Mexico border.

GAEL GARCÍA BERNAL: [translated] A few kilometers from the border between Sonora and Arizona, there is a town called Altar. Altar, where you make a final offering before crossing the desert. If you make it this far on the journey, the promised land is within sight. But the last steps are always the hardest. On the other side of the wall, you find the U.S.A. Pima County, Arizona.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from Who Is Dayani Cristal?, that just premiered here at Sundance. To talk more about it, we’re joined here in Park City by the director, Marc Silver. This is his first feature-length film.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARC SILVER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: What a remarkable film. As the whole Democracy Now! team came out, they were in awe. Talk about how you blended real documentary footage with dramatic acting of Bernal and others.

MARC SILVER: Well, we—the documentary part is the discovery, as you said, of this dead person in the desert, and we retrace that person—person’s family all the way back to Honduras and follow the body as it goes through this investigative process and returns home to the funeral. Because our, if you like, main character, or that case, is about a dead man, we needed to work out a way where we could breathe like life and juxtapose the very tragic story of that person dying in the desert. And we wanted to, if you like, bring life as a juxtaposition to death, and hence started to work out with Gael what would be the best way to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does this relate to this series of shorts you did for Amnesty International with Bernal?

MARC SILVER: Well, Gael and I made a series of shorts for Amnesty that looked at the human rights abuse of migrants traveling through southern Mexico, about a year before we did this shoot for Dayani Cristal. And that informed Gael and myself about what it was that migrants went through. Six out of 10 women are raped on the journey through Mexico. Up to 10,000 migrants get kidnapped every year and extorted for money as they travel through Mexico. And that, I think, pushed Gael into a very emotionally engaged space when it came to the issue of migration.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you want this to affect U.S. immigration policy? You took on a tough issue in a dramatic film: U.S. immigration policy.

MARC SILVER: Yeah. Well, in a way, we didn’t overtly deal with immigration reform in the U.S. And that was on purpose, because we figured there was enough information out there from both the left wing and right wing, and we didn’t want to sort of add more fuel to that rhetoric. So instead what we did was focus on one very small human story, and in the hope that the audiences would ask themselves: What would I do if I was that person? What would I do for my family? And the hope, I guess, is that you would slightly shift your perspective on the humanity side of the debate rather than the, like, predictable left- and right-wing responses to immigration reform.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. The film is one you will never forget. It is called Who Is Dayani Cristal? And you’ll find out just who Dayani Cristal is. It just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival.

(*) See this program on Democracy Now.