High on the list of divisive issues for a segment American public and the government, is the need for an Immigration Reform that adapts to the circumstances as they are now. Nonetheless, it is hard to ask for empathy when the center of the argument is criminalization, always backed by a numerical value given to those who crossed illegally, those who are deported, and those who died. Numbers in a never-ending battle for what is politically viable and what is humanly imperative. Filmmakers have often tried to put a face to such a controversial topic, to redirect the conversation to what is really important: human lives and the undeniable right to look for survival. Whether that means staying in their homeland to perish or risking every last bit of hope in the quest for at least one chance. British documentary filmmaker Marc Silver brings a riveting and touching vision to the subject in his outstanding and heartbreaking documentary Who is Dayani Cristal?.
The story of a dead body found in the desert and the investigation to find the the man behind the mystery. Helped by Gael García Bernal, who retraces his steps in a dangerous and inspiring journey across Central America and Mexico, the film is a vivid reminder of what politics usually forget. No life is insignificant, and though the law might deemed them illegal, human sacrifice is above any rules. Here is what director Marc Silver told us about his fascinating and thought provoking film.
Aguilar: How did you come across the “Dayani Cristal” case? Did you start making a general film about immigration, which then evolved into this story?
Marc Silver: What happened was that, at the beginning about five years ago here in London, we launched a website that asked people to send in stories against war, barriers, and the disparity between rich and poor. One of the stories that we received was a story about an unidentified skeleton in the desert in Arizona; we saw an image of the police holding the skull in the desert. From that image we then researched the Tucson area and then I managed to make some research trips to be with the search and rescue police when they recover bodies, and with the medical examiner’s office at the morgue, where they investigate the bodies to try to find the identity. Also with the Mexican consulate in Arizona to see the work they do to try to contact the families.
I did a couple of research trip with all three of these agencies. In the summer, August 2010, I spent about four or five weeks in the Tucson area, every time the police would recover a body I would go out there with them, and that’s how I filmed the Dayani Cristal body. We then waited a couple months for this particular person to be identified, and we followed that identification process, which took us all the way back to Honduras. We did all of that, and once we understood the story and the potential journey that this man would have made, that’s when we filmed the journey from South to North with Gael.
Aguilar: Why did you decide to use two different storylines or devices to tell this story, the investigation and Gael’s reenactment of this man’s odyssey?
Silver: The investigation is at the core of the film. I think one of the most interesting parts of the investigation is that it actually shows the Americans doing very significant and important humanitarian work, which I think comes as a surprise to many people because of the negative perception, understandably, of the U.S. immigration policy. It is sort of refreshing for some audiences to see the Americans doing humanitarian work. The investigation is the spine of the whole film, we were able to film a body in the desert and then trace every step of the investigation, and also include this kind of device that involves Gael retracing the man’s footsteps. We did that for a couple of reasons, mainly because we wanted to humanize the icon of the migrant and we wanted to humanize people who are dying with literally no identity. In some cases all there is left is a skeleton, which is a dehumanized version of a human being. We wanted to work with Gael to re-humanize the migrants who are found dead in the desert. Following the footsteps of this man, Yohan, also brings a mythical force to all the other migrants he met in that journey.
Aguilar: How difficult was it to get Gael and the camera in the center of the action the dangerous trains, and all other risky situations shown in the film? It is filmmaking with real life danger and consequences.
Silver: Initially, about ten months before we filmed those scenes, Gael and I made four short films for Amnesty International called The Invisibles. For every film we traveled to shelters, the train tracks, the river crosses, all over this road. Those films are specifically about the human rights of migrants traveling through the Mexican part of their journey. So we had done these sort of research trips in conjunction with Amnesty, so we new the lay of the land. We shot the Dayani Cristal film with a really small crew, we had very small, cinematic quality cameras, so we could be very DYI, and come in and out of those environments quickly and efficiently. We didn’t have any extra film equipment like lighting, or extra transportation. We would be in 2 regular cars with 8 of us in them, we had some very exciting and dangerous moments like jumping onto the trains or riding the train, and going across desert areas like Nogales. The most important thing to note is that the sort of dangers that we might have experienced, were nothing in comparison to the dangers the migrants face. At the end of the day we were able to get in our cars and go to a hotel and rest, it was DYI filmmaking, but it doesn’t compare to what the real people making this journey have to endure.
Aguilar: Being a British filmmaker what sort of outside perspective did you bring to the film?
Silver: In the beginning it wasn’t necessarily that I set out to make a film specifically about the U.S/Mexican border. I was generally interested in the fortification of borders all around the world, and the reasons why governments want to build walls. They are happy to pay the costs of ensuring borders, but then they are not so happy about people. I was interested in this generally. We have our similar issue here in Europe with the Mediterranean Sea, which is a place where thousands of migrants die crossing from North Africa to come to Europe, drowning in these terrible boats. When we saw that image of the skull in the desert, it allowed us to ask the question, “What does one dead body in the dessert tells you about the shifts in migration and the disparity between rich and poor?”
The perspective I had as an outsider, it kind of evolved, when we began making the film Immigration Reform had just failed, and the chances of it passing in the U.S. have changed throughout the making of it. Now that the film is finished, and the place where Immigration Reform is at the moment, I think the film is really interesting and useful because the immigration debate is about “Shall we change the lives of 12 million undocumented people? And if we do, it would only happen if we increase border security” There is this kind of tradeoff between legalization and increased border security, I think our film very clearly shows that you shouldn’t forget that increased border security will inevitably mean an increase in terrible deaths. In my understanding about this subject in the U.S, not a lot of people are talking about these deaths, part of the film is to shine a light on that and remind people that this will lead to more deaths.
Aguilar: Does cinema have the power to inspire action?
Silver: Absolutely. I’m interested in using the medium of documentary to highlight issues that are not widely spoken about. We as consumers are widely connected to the issues, and sometimes the real stories are hidden in plain view. Not a lot of people know that migrants die in the desert in Arizona, and even outside of the U.S, most people don’t even know there is a wall between Mexico and the U.S. I want to use cinema to bring attention to some of these issues, by no means should everyone do that, but that’s what I’m interested in. If you are inspired by the film we encourage you to visit our website where you can take action and learn more about the issues rose by the film. We are also just finishing off an e-book that you will be able to download for free.
Aguilar: The Migrant’s Prayer plays a crucial role throughout the film, it expressed hope, fear, and represents the only source of comfort the migrants have. How did this prayer become a part of the story?
Silver: Initially, the prayer was actually on Yohan’s body when they found him. That was real. Then when we started planning the Gael part of the journey we realized that at some point maybe he had been given that prayer, because we knew about the church-sponsored shelters for migrants, we thought we could make a connection between the religious charity work and his story. The prayer was already in the documentary, because it was found on his body, and we bumped that up a little bit. Another thing I found interesting is that all throughout this journey, from Yohan’s family, to all the migrants traveling through Mexico, and even what is found on the dead bodies in the morgue, there were all sorts of Christian iconography, prayers, crosses, pictures, etc. They were all throughout the journey, which of course, is all about praying for safety and also hope for the future. This is part of the migrants’ mentality from the moment they leave home until the reach the U.S. In many cases praying is the only sense of protection they will get because the road is so dangerous. The prayer and the religious iconography became a much bigger part of the journey that I would have ever imagined in the beginning.
Aguilar: "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" focuses on a single life, yet it is more insightful about the issue that any data or numerical values related to immigration phenomenon.
Silver: My personal opinion is that there is so much information about immigration from the left-wing point of view or the right-wing point of view. They have statistics and data, etc. If you want to learn anything in this manner you can simply go into Google. What I wanted to do is not have that kind of attitude in the film, all we had to do is argue one point of view to show that many times we don’t remember that what we are talking about is life and death, and hopes, and dreams, and a future. What I thought was more important was tt id we were able to show one human being’s journey, it wouldn’t be about statistics it would be more about the power of empathy. I remember being in the car with my friends talking about the situation, and what I found really interesting was to ask myself “If I lived in Honduras, were my chances of earning a living were really small, would I have made that journey for my family?” And you know what, I probably would have. If people start asking that question to themselves it might a more useful way of understanding the immigration debate, more than defending your right-wing or left-wing opinion.