[Editor’s note: Fandor is highlighting documentary films making a social impact this month. We begin our look at transformative nonfiction by replaying Kevin B. Lee’s excellent video essay on the recently released Who Is Dayani Cristal?, which was first published September 9.]
Who Is Dayani Cristal? is an award-winning documentary that explores the mystery behind the body of an immigrant man found in the Arizona desert. It’s a complex saga that spans from Central America to the United States, covering a host of issues involving migrant labor and U.S. immigration policy, but in watching it, three distinct modes of storytelling come into focus.
First, there’s footage of border patrolmen, doctors and immigration officials in Arizona, each doing their part to investigate the identity of the body. Thousands of miles away, we see a family in Honduras whose father has migrated to the U.S., seeking work to better support them. And there’s a third storyline that follows actor Gael Garcia Bernal as he personally re-enacts the long journey the dead man might have taken, from Honduras through Mexico all the way to the U.S. border.
One could separate each of these storylines from the others to form three separate movies. Each depicts their own social system in operation: a government office in Arizona, a village in Central America, a human trafficking network in Mexico. Each tells a self-contained story with its own ground-level perspective on the mysterious body. And yet, each perspective on its own gives only a limited view of the crisis of trans-American migration. By combining the three into one interlinking narrative chain, we can get a more comprehensive picture of how corpses found in the U.S. desert are connected to families in Latin America, and the economic, social and political forces that drove them on their fatal journey.
Another interesting aspect of Who Is Dayani Cristal? is that it’s not just made of three movies, but three genres of movies. The scenes with the immigration officials in the U.S. investigating the body have the cool, procedural quality of a forensic crime movie or TV show. The scenes in Honduras are filmed in warm, communal tones, creating a sympathetic portrait of a family with a missing member. And the scenes with Gael Garcia Bernal travelling for thousands of miles have the feel of an adventure movie, bringing a heroic quality to our perception of Latino migrant laborers.
Adventure movie, crime movie, family movie. Who is Dayani Cristal? may present itself as a documentary, but it uses the qualities of different genres to create a range of emotions and a more varied dramatic experience. And it uses that richness to take a complex social issue and bring it vividly to life.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.