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Sundance Review: Garcia Bernal Mystery Doc 'Who Is Dayani Cristal?'

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood January 23, 2013 at 11:26PM

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.
Gael Garcia Bernal
Gael Garcia Bernal

Silver embedded himself with the search and rescue unit of the Pima County's sheriff and accompanied them to film the recovery of bodies from the desert, including the trip during which Yohan's body was retrieved, while Bernal and the other filmmakers made the same trip from Honduras to Arizona that so many migrants have.  In one particularly effective scene, Bernal and the crew travel on the roof of a train as it snakes through Guatemala and Mexico, putting themselves in harm's way but providing an immersive, compelling look at the hope and fortitude required to set out on a journey that is in so many ways filled with uncertainty.

When I spoke to Ochoa and Benski by phone from Sundance two days after the film's premiere, they emphasized that their aim was to make a film that wasn't told from a Western perspective, but rather one that embedded the audience in the experience of the Yohan's life.  The film, they told me, was an attempt to move away from the often emotionally and politically-charged rhetoric surrounding immigration and focus on one man's personal tragedy.  Watching the film, the passion that Bernal and the other filmmakers feel about this subject is palpable.

But ultimately, "Dayani Cristal" is about too many things at once: in presenting a multiplicity of angles both on the story of Yohan himself and the larger problems of migration in general, it diffuses itself to the point of becoming muddled.  Is this a film about one man who loved his family deeply and risked a journey to improve their lot that would lead to his death?  Is it a film about Gael Garcia Bernal's experience following in that man's footsteps?  Or is it a film about the efforts of those well-intentioned American officials and their counterparts in the governments of nations across the Americas to identify the men and women who die trying to make their way to the U.S.? 

These questions are part of a mystery that "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" does not solve.  When the film's eponymous question is finally answered, the revelation doesn't quite hit as hard as was probably intended.  In the end, that's probably because it wasn't really the central question of the film in the first place.

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Gael García Bernal, Mark Monroe, Documentary, Festivals, Festivals

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.