'Who Is Dayani Cristal?': Director Marc Silver On Why Immigration Reform Matters, Plus Working With Gael García Bernal [EXCLUSIVE]

Gael Garcia Bernal in Marc Silver's 'Who Is Dayani Cristal?' Pulse Films

“There was something just off the scale at that point, realizing that we are literally just dust. I remember picking up the camera bag and there was just dust on it. It was a massive realization.” The moment documentary filmmaker Marc Silver describes occurs about half an hour into his first feature film, "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" which he made with Gael García Bernal. We watch as a forensic officer cremates the body of yet another unidentified migrant. That was about the point in the film where I started crying: the tears did not stop until the credits finished rolling.

Silver's film tells the story of a single man but, in so doing, he reveals the plight of thousands. "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" centers on the discovery of a body in the Arizona desert with "Dayani Cristal" tattooed on its chest. The film tracks a north-south narrative as Silver follows the painstaking investigation in which forensic scientists work with consular officers and U.S. authorities to identify the body and send it back to a broken family desperate for answers.

Gael García Bernal traces a south-to-north narrative, following the path that the migrant would have taken on his long journey from Honduras to the Arizona Desert, through Guatemala and Mexico. Despite being the star of Mexican cinema, Bernal becomes transformed into a universal everyman, embarking on a journey from which a meager few return. The conversations he manages to have are intimate and touching: Silver describes how the fellow travellers were "never star struck" by Bernal and, thanks to the intimacy of his filmmaking, neither are we.

For Silver, the project began with a global narrative: five years ago, he launched a website calling for people to submit interesting stories of injustice. Yet among all the thousands of human stories, Silver recognized a common thread. "It was always about a small specific issue but no one was dealing with the systemic issue, which is the difference between rich and poor.  That’s what inspired us." One of the stories that came through was that of hundreds of skeletal remains discovered in the Arizona Desert.

Travelling to Tucson, Silver met Robin Reineke, a cultural anthropologist who had begun investigating the deaths of thousands of migrants in the area. Reineke explains that she "was very interested in the body anthropologically speaking and in conflict settings, how key the body becomes as a site of struggle. The body is evidence and memory and testimony.” During her PHD studies at the University of Arizona, she began working with a forensic anthropologist working on the case: Bruce Anderson. She says it was like "walking up to a disaster zone and saying, ‘I want to study what you’re doing.'”

For although "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" tells the story of one Honduran migrant, the mysterious tattooed body is one of hundreds. During the film, we learn that since 2000, there have been 165 deaths in the desert each year, which, as Reineke says, is the equivalent of “a medium-sized plane crash every year.” The victims come from many places: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and more. But their goal is the same: to make a better life for themselves in the United States.

Sadly, as the film so heart-breakingly reveals, the vast majority of these migrants never make it. Strict new border crossing laws and the creation of the border-wide fence have meant that most migrants seeking to enter the U.S. are forced to make the crossing at its most treacherous point: the Arizona Desert. Searing temperatures during the day, freezing cold at night mean few survive. The man the film follows died just twenty minutes from Tuscon.

Silver has managed to obtain intimate interviews with the victim’s family in Honduras. “They were just very grateful that he made it home,” Silver explains. “They kind of thought I was part of that discovery of their loved one and a few times I had to be like ‘No, no, I just documented it.’ I think they kind of thought that I’d actually found him and brought him home in the airplane.”

Silver also had to explain to the family that the film itself was unlikely to make any money: as so often happens, the most important films are frequently the least successful – I hope that “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” is a stark exception. Notwithstanding, Silver managed to raise enough money to implement a new water supply system in the village and is currently crowd funding to raise money for the school.

With the exception of his two weeks with movie star Gael García, Silver shot the whole film on his own. And he spoke almost no Spanish. Surprisingly enough, Silver’s linguistic ineptitude renders a startlingly striking visual aesthetic: “I think I was a frequency deeper in the photography thing because my language skills were basically non-existent.”

Reineke too has struggled with linguistic proficiency, saying that, after many years in forensics, “I can talk a lot about scars and tattoos.” However, she reveals that “I am comforted by the fact that they are comforted by me sometimes: being at the other end of the line when so many times they feel like there isn’t someone at the other end of the line that cares.”

Reineke’s deep sense of compassion fostered through this process has in fact inspired her to create a new organization: the Colibri Center for Human Rights. The colibri, which means hummingbird in Spanish, is a powerful messenger from the living to the dead in many Latin American cultures. Likewise, Reineke’s center brings the identities of the dead back those that will mourn them on earth.

Reineke explains that “by accident I ended up with the biggest database of missing migrants in the country.” Consequently, the Colibri Center “owns the most comprehensive dataset of missing persons last seen crossing the US-Mexico border. Along with access to information about unidentified remains found along border, this data allows us to successfully match families searching for loved ones with unidentified remains and inform the public of a continuing human rights crisis on the border.”

Much like Reineke’s work in making a digit a person or giving a body a history, Silver’s film manages to illustrate the very real consequences of abstract policy. Whether it’s the US’s changing, broken immigration laws or the consequences of the NAFTA agreement, Silver manages to “go to the dark heart and to show that these decisions that are made thousands of miles away from the people they affect can lead to real, proper, end of life.”

The film thus manages to insert the human issue into what has for too long been a purely political and economic discussion on immigration. “The loss of human life and the protection of human life on the border is just starkly absent from the conversation of immigration reform and border policy,” says Reineke. “And that’s something that we as a public are responsible for. We need to insert this problem into the conversation.”

Yet ultimately, the film’s crowning achievement is implicating the viewer into the universality of struggle. For Silver, too, it became a deeply personal experience: “I felt that I or all my friends would have made the same decision if we had to support our families or if we had dreams or aspirations that couldn’t be fulfilled where we lived. I remember going back one time, being at the pub with some friends and just looking around the table and thinking ‘It could’ve been the four of us and maybe one of us would never have made it home.”


“Who Is Dayani Cristal?” is currently playing nationwide. To find a screening near you or for more information on the project visit www.whoisdayanicristal.com or find the film on Facebook or Twitter.

To find out more about Robin Reineke and the Colibri Center, visit www.colibricenter.org


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Oscar Lopez is a Brooklyn-based writer. Originally from Mexico, Oscar moved with his family to Australia in 2000. Graduating from the University of Melbourne in 2011 with a BA (Honors) Oscar was awarded the Keith Macartney Scholarship for the Arts, the Louise Homfrey Award and the Hannah Barry Memorial Award. As well as reporting for Latin Times, Oscar's writng has been featured in Newsweek, New York Magazine (nymag.com) and Musee Magazine.