Immigration reform continues to be an issue for heated debate, particularly in the states that border Mexico, which serve as a floodgate of sorts for illegal immigration from Mexico and points south. Marc Silver’s documentary Who is Dayani Cristal? explores this issue through the story of one such immigrant, an unknown man whose body is found in the Arizona desert with no identifying paperwork, the only clue to who he was in life elaborate tattoos on his chest spelling out “Dayani” and “Cristal.”
Structurally speaking, Silver breaks from the more traditional documentary mold by using dramatic reconstructions with the film’s producer, Gael Garcia Bernal, playing the part of the unknown immigrant as he retraces the man’s journey. More effective are interviews with the medical examiner and consulate caseworkers assigned the daunting task of trying to determine the identities of those who leave behind all traces of who they are in their attempt to forge a new life across the border, who passionately advocate for the idea that the United States immigration policy dehumanizes humans, reducing them to chattel to send back across the border or put in body bags when the grueling attempt to cross illegally cuts their lives short. Where you might expect people who deal daily in the science of decomposing bodies to become jaded about their task, the people interviewed here are emotional and seem genuinely invested in their belief that there has to be a better way.
The film is beautifully shot, with glorious sweeping shots of both desert and cityscape, but the reenactment scenes don’t do much to enhance the film at all, spending much time attempting to retrace the mystery man’s steps in the weeks leading to his solitary death in the desert, when that time would have been better spent in developing a thesis and supporting it. Further, by failing to include any perspective at all from the other side of the immigration discussion, the filmmakers miss an opportunity here to answer those arguments with reasoned and impassioned counterpoints and proposed solutions. This lack of objectivity works to the film’s detriment as anything much beyond emotional tug-and-pull by spoon-feeding the viewer with what they should feel, rather than offering compelling arguments from both sides, stirring debate, and leaving it to the audience to decide what they think and feel about this issue for themselves.
I personally fall very much on the side of the argument this film is taking, but even so I grew restless and weary of the emotionally manipulative approach. On the one hand, the filmmakers approach of attempting to humanize this body in the desert by exploring his family life at home before he left to try to immigrate and make a better life for his family lends to the emotional impact of the film by spelling it out for us: This man is more than a body. He loved and was loved, and that humanity should be more important than borders and wall. Unfortunately, this approach also serves to work as a detriment to the film, because the more we see of his life before immigration, his family and his friends, his wife and his children, the more we can’t help but think: Surely he had other options, other choices he could have made, than to leave them all behind and travel thousands of miles just to die attempting to cross the desert.
The film attempts to preemptively respond to this argument with the interviews with case workers and the medical examiner arguing their case, for which they have a unique perspective, being the ones charged with the task of dealing with thousands of unidentified bodies found in the desert each year. They do make the point that there’s been a vast increase in the number of such bodies they have to deal with each year since Bill Clinton signed off on immigration reform in 2004, arguing that by tightening up all the safer border crossings, our government has essentially forced these immigrants to cross the dangerous miles of the desert in order to get in. But they fall short in questions the other side of the discussion might demand an answer to: Yes, the number of bodies has increased, but what percentage of overall illegal immigrants attempting such crossings does that actually represent? Have the numbers increased only because of the tightening of borders, or has the volume of people attempting to cross also increased, which would in turn increase the number that don’t make it?
Perhaps more importantly, the film fails utterly to address any issues of the financial implications to our government of supporting the illegals who do make it through; nor does it offer any proposed solutions for how to deal with the influx of immigrants from the south once they’re here. Do we educate all their children, provide for their emergency health care, provide for basic life needs of food, clothing and shelter? I’m not arguing that we should not, by the way – I lean way to the left on this issue generally – but by not even raising these questions or giving voice to those who demand those answers when the immigration question is raised, the film misses the opportunity to serve as a compelling force to stimulate debate on an issue that’s actually very crucial.
I understand the filmmaker’s desire here to make this a story about this one man and not an overall argument against immigration reform. The latter clearly the path they wanted to take, with their focus firmly on humanizing this man, and by (briefly) making the case that these immigrants, by virtue of their brown skin and their status as illegals become, even if they do safely make the crossing, little more than invisible workers who do all the blue-collar tasks of cleaning and gardening and crop-picking that we don’t want to do. Our economy relies upon them, we need them, and yet we dehumanize them and force them to risk their lives to get here, and of course there is a patent unfairness and sense of entitlement in the very idea that “we” somehow matter more than “them,” and that if they want to be here they should come legally (just try that, by the way, if you’re a lower income person trying to get here from Mexico, or Honduras, or any point south of the border).
Unfortunately, by taking this path of moralistic preaching to the choir by using this one man as a stand-in for all unnamed bleached bones and bodies found therein, those sons and daughter, husbands, fathers and wives, Who Is Dayani Cristal? does little to make its case beyond the sheer emotional impact of telling this one man’s story, however well it tells that tale, offering little to nothing in the way of advocacy for genuine reform, and its lack of objectivity, underscored by the lack of any perspective from a pro-immigration reform point-of-view, ultimately keeps the film from being as relevant and compelling as it otherwise might have been.