An unidentified body is found in the Sonoran desert in Pima County, Arizona under the heat of an August sun—the body of a migrant, traveling north along a treacherous and uncertain path to the United States. The man has almost nothing with him but a small paper prayerbook and a prominent but enigmatic tattoo across his chest with two words: Dayani Cristal.
This dramatic set-up serves as the frame for "Who Is Dayani Cristal?", which premiered last Thursday during the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival, an unusual film that functions almost as three documentaries on the same subject presented in tandem. The first focuses on the efforts of the medical examiners and investigators in Tucson who painstakingly sift through a vanishingly small set of clues to determine the man's identity; the second follows actor Gael García Bernal—who also produced the film—as he retraces the man's journey from his native Honduras to the United States; and the third features interviews with the family whom the man, Dilcy Yohan Sandres Martínez, left in his native Honduras for a chance at greater prosperity and opportunity in the U.S.
The fact that these three distinct narratives are intertwined into a single whole makes "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" an engaging and unconventional documentary. When we meet Yohan's family early in the film, we know implicitly that the truth of his identity will be uncovered, even though we have just begun to meet the American and Honduran officials who will make that happen. The interplay between Yohan's family in Honduras, the investigators in Arizona and Bernal's experience traveling northward makes "Dayani Cristal" an alternately immersive and instructive film, with a story that could easily have been presented as a straightforward, lineal procedural turning into a more philosophical exploration of the social, political and economic challenges of migration that not only tells but also shows.
But it also makes the entire film a bit inscrutable, especially since the Bernal element follows two distinct tracks that are never reconciled, or indeed even explicitly acknowledged as at odds with one another: at the beginning of the film, we see Bernal, his chest emblazoned with the words 'Dayani Cristal,' playing Yohan, the man whose body we will follow from the Sonoran desert to Tucson and eventually back to Honduras. But for the rest of the movie, we follow Bernal as himself, retracing the steps of Yohan's journey and experiencing first-hand the life of a migrant.
To be sure, the process which led to the creation of the film is indeed remarkable: the film's creative team, comprised of Bernal's producing partners Lucas Ochoa and Thomas Benski, director Marc Silver and screenwriter Mark Monroe, who wrote the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove," set out four years ago to examine the human tragedy behind the deaths of migrants in the desert Southwest, which have spiked almost tenfold spike in the last decade.