First off, I just want to say how happy I am to be back at the Sundance Film Festival. I already feel the energy of the snow, the filmmakers and other film lovers. Even when I don’t like the movies, I’m excited to discover films and celebrate filmmaking. I did not like the first movie I saw, but it happens.
Who Is Dayani Cristal? is a docu narrative from directors Gael Garcia Bernal and Mark Silver. A Honduran immigrant is found dead in the Arizona desert, and the documentary portion follows the missing persons and forensic anthropology departments as they try to identify the body, beginning with his tattoo “Dayani Cristal” on his chest. Through this one particular case, they explain how hundreds of South Americans die each year by trying to cross an especially dangerous part of Arizona.
It’s kind of a spoiler though because before any of that happens, we see Gael Garcia Bernal playing the character of Yohan. As the documentary subjects follow leads and discover who Dayani Cristal is, the narrative portion of the film portray’s Yohan’s journey from Honduras, hopping trains, crossing rivers and making his way north.
The documentary portion is really interesting. It’s morbid, tragic, sobering stuff but it is a poignant subject and fascinating to see how the experts solve these mysteries. We see the vault where shelves full of body bags await identification, and postmortem fingerprinting techniques, but through the worst of it you can tell the experts are sensitive and passionate about doing right by these victims. It gets political inasmuch as the people who deal with these deaths every day have opinions about immigration issues.
The re-enactment poses a problem for me. For one, the anonymity is what I respond to in the story. Who is there to speak for people who’ve left their families behind and nobody knows where they are? In that sense the advocates really move me with their commitment to these people. Putting the face of Yohan on it is actually the cliché. Now it’s another tug at your heartstrings drama.
It’s confusing too. Maybe they just needed a star in the movie to get it made, and Bernal is a producer so he could help the cause as an actor. But are the Yohan segments scripted, or is he just in character letting other immigrants share with his camera? Those segments also create a narrative problem because the documentary subjects say in narration that the journey is dangerous and fraught with criminals who could harm him, but we don’t get that from the visuals. If you’re going the extra mile to re-enact his journey, show, don’t tell.
There’s a really good documentary in Who Is Dayani Cristal?, or perhaps there is a strong narrative if they focused on it, but given the problematic nature of the narrative segments, I’m going to go with the documentary portion. Perhaps the DVD will have bonus features that focus just on the documentary part.
And check out these other reviews from Sundance 2013:
Two Mothers; starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts
Austenland; starring Keri Russell
Emmanuel and the Truth About Fishes; starring Kaya Scodelario
Don Jon's Addiction; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson
Virtually Heroes; produced by Roger Corman
Breathe In; starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pierce
Inequality for All; featuring Robert Reich
Blue Caprice; starring Isaiah Washington and Tim Blake Nelson
Fill the Void; starring Renana Raz
Running From Crazy; featuring Mariel Hemingway
Wrong Cops; starring Steve Little
Hell Baby; starring Rob Corddry
Stoker; starring Nicole Kidman
Escape from Tomorrow; shot without permits at Disney World
Before Midnight; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
We Are What We Are; starring Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner
Afternoon Delight; starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple
Ass Backwards; starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael
I Used to Be Darker; starring Deragh Campbell
Magic Magic; starring Juno Temple
Prince Avalanche; starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
Sweetwater; starring January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris
Crystal Fairy; starring Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman
S-VHS; sequel to found footage horror film V/H/S
Lovelace; starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone
The East; starring Brit Marling and Alexander Saarsgaard
After Tiller, about abortion doctor George Tiller
Citizen Koch, about The Koch Brothers and campaign finance contributions
Gangs of Wasseypur, a 5 1/2 hour Indian crime epic
In Fear, a horror movie set entirely within a car
The Rambler, starring Dermot Mulroney
What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love, about a school for the blind and deaf
Upstream Color; starring Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.