Sundance Journal: ‘Who Is Dayani Cristal?’

I didn’t have much luck with documentaries at Sundance this year. Usually, I see a handful of great docs at the festival, but the ones I saw this year were less than stellar. That includes ‘Who Is Dayani Cristal?’.

The synopsis bills ‘Who Is Dayani Cristal?’ as a mystery. A man is found dead in the Arizona desert. He was an illegal immigrant trying to cross the most dangerous stretch of desert between Mexico and the United States. Thousands of people die each year trying to find their way to America illegally. Many of the deaths end up as John Does. A handful of people work to find out the identities of these bodies in order to ship the remains back to the families.

The man that the movie focuses on has no ID. His body is found August 3rd, 2010 by Border Patrol officers. A peculiar tattoo on the man’s chest stands out. It reads: “Dayani Cristal.” The tattoo covers the entire width of his chest.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t any mystery, because the filmmakers go straight to the man’s family and talk to them. His wife explains the kind of man he was, the kind of father he was, and the reason he wanted to make the dangerous trip to America. While it’s certainly harrowing to hear about his story, the movie makes the mistake of squandering any sort of mystery that it might have built.

The documentary’s real purpose is to be a commentary on immigration. It has more than a few not-so-subtle sound bites from people involved closely with the identification of these bodies who sound off about their personal views on America’s immigration policies. The movie wants to raise a debate about immigration policy under the guise of finding out who this man really was. I have no problem with a documentary taking on a controversial issue like immigration, but don’t spring it on us in the middle of the movie. It’s almost as if the filmmakers said to themselves: “Okay, we’ve got a captive audience for the next 80 minutes. Forget about the guy; let’s go for policy reform.”

I don’t know. I felt a little cheated by the way the movie goes about delivering its message. Its real intent, to rail against the current immigration standards, is shoehorned in between the story about the man found in the desert.

Like I said, I have no problem with someone taking on a hard-hitting controversy, but don’t try to disguise it as something else. ‘Who Is Dayani Cristal?’ feels like two different documentaries, of which neither hits its mark.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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