‘Who Is Dayani Cristal?’ tells tale of migrants


Photo by Brett Stover

Adam Schoelz


Photo by Daphne Yu
Photo by Daphne Yu
Who Is Dayani Cristal? is a documentary that is simultaneously important and unimportant. While this may seem contradictory I don’t think it is because documentaries have two absolute catagories – the Important Documentaries that cover Important Topics with numerous talking heads and the human touch of a machine, and the unimportant documentaries that cover a tiny facet of life with incredible detail and a deft hand. Cristal covers an important topic – illegal immigration – by looking at the life and journey of one deceased immigrant.
To be sure, this is not the movie that is described in the blurb in the True/False booklet. While that paints the movie more as a mystery, a noirish caper of identification and tracking, it is in actuality a tragedy of the most inevitable sort, an excellent look at the human side of the thousands of migrants, living and dead, who traverse the Arizona desert in the hopes of finding a better life for their families.
Juxtaposing the more standard style of interviewing forensic anthropologists, consulate workers, and coroners with a unique recreation of the mystery man’s journey, Cristal finds a new perspective on the well worn debate on illegal immigration. Since 2000, over 2000 migrants have died trying to cross the Arizona desert. Many are never identified, their bodies cremated
It’s an important documentary for the reason documentaries are important: it puts a human face on a dehumanized issue. In this country illegal immigration is hardly a question of immigrants; it is a question of money, of jobs, of illogically placed loyalties and political boundaries. Cristal shows just how silly that is by exploring the migrants and to a lesser extent the border patrol in an interesting and levelheaded way.
It compares easily to two other films at True/False: These Birds Walk and A Captain And His Pirate. All three find a way to illustrate the relationship between extreme poverty and illegal activity in a way that seems inevitable to the viewer; that is, it makes so much sense to jump the border when your child has leukemia and free trade has eliminated profit from farming.
Cristal drags in the second act as it struggles to find the narrative in the mystery man’s story as he crosses from Honduras to Mexico to the United States, but it’s incredible ending makes up for it. It is not a story that ends happily, after all, and the more we get to know the dead man the more his death stings. And to be sure, the meaning of the tattoo – Dayani Cristal – is at the heart of this tragedy.
Who Is Dayani Cristal? is a political film that tells a story but it’s a good one. By taking a balanced and personal stance on a hot button issue, it achieves what many documentaries can only attempt – education.
Catch “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” on Sunday, March 3rd at 1:00 p.m.
By Adam Schoelz