“Who is Dayani Cristal?” director hopes to broaden understanding of migration

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 23 July 2014 12:47 GMT

A Central American illegal migrant hugs a woman carrying a photo of her son, who disappeared on his way through Mexico to the U.S., in Tierra Blanca, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Picture October 29, 2012. REUTERS/Yahir Ceballos

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Director asks where the thousands of migrants risking death crossing U.S. border come from, and why?

LONDON (Thomson  Reuters Foundation) – “Dayani Cristal" reads the large tattoo across the chest of a dead man found in Arizona's Sonora desert, giving little help to U.S. border officials starting the painstaking process of identifying him.

"Who is Dayani Cristal?", a documentary by British director Marc Silver and Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, depicts the potentially deadly consequences of the decision made by thousands of Central Americans every year to embark on the perilous journey to the United States as illegal immigrants.

Silver said that when making the film he learned that migration tends to be looked at in a disjointed way, adding fuel to a heated debate over immigration in the United States and elsewhere.

"Most people don't think that the story of migration begins before the border," Silver told Thomson Reuters Foundation, saying that he hopes his film will force people to consider what prompts migrants to leave their country rather than focus on what happens when they reach their destination.

As the U.S. struggles to gain control over an influx of unaccompanied child migrants, the film - a cinematography award winner at the Sundance Film Festival - takes the viewer on a dual journey.

Following a team of dedicated staff from the Pima County morgue in Arizona, Silver tried to find answers to questions about who this dead person was, what bought him there, how did he die and who – or what - is Dayani Cristal.

Piecing together the few pieces of information they have, the investigators work with Mexico and other countries to identify and repatriate those who have died trying to enter the United States.

As the forensic investigation unfolds, Garcia Bernal retraces the man's steps along the migrant trail in Central America, a path thousands have taken before him. The actor joins other migrants for the long and dangerous journey north, learning about their hopes and fears.

He then travels back to the dead man's village in Honduras when his body is brought home and the meaning of the tattoo on his chest becomes clear.

"By looking at it from an everyman perspective and retracing the journey of one individual, the film metaphorically alludes to a much bigger global pattern," Silver said. "It's not just about a dead guy in the Arizona desert.

"You can find similar stories in many parts of the world, look at Europe and what is happening in Lampedusa, look at what is happening in Australia or other countries."


An estimated 11 million people entered the United States illegally in 2013, many of them the parents of young children.

As a result, Washington has ramped up its police presence along the border with Mexico and built a wall to halt the flow of illegal immigration.

Some 2,000 bodies have been found in the Arizona desert, known as the "corridor of death", over the past decade. About 700 of them have not been identified. 

Often the bodies are found without identification, as recommended for security reasons by the "coyotes", or people smugglers, whom the migrants pay to help them cross the border.

Compared with the 57,000 unaccompanied child migrants from Central America that have been caught at the U.S. border since October, the number of bodies found in the desert is small, said Silver. 

But the message of his film is about the bigger picture of what drives migration, he added.

"The children naturally make more headlines than these literally invisible bodies in the desert but both are deeply connected to how the economy of the U.S. works," he said, referring to the U.S. economy's hunger for cheap blue-collar workers.

"When do you start defining someone as a migrant or as a refugee? The definitions are becoming increasingly blurred...when you have economic and political insecurity in Honduras, for example."

(Editing by Tim Pearce; timothy.pearce@thomsonreuters.com)

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