Park City, Utah -- Marc Silver’s documentary “Who is Dayani Cristal?” opens with a dead body.
It is the decomposing remains of an illegal immigrant who failed in his attempt to cross the Arizona desert, and the only meaningful identification on his body is a tattoo across his chest reading, “Dayani” on one pectoral and “Cristal” on the other.
What follows is part forensic investigation and a kind of dramatic reenactment, in which actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who also produced the movie and shares a “film by” credit, follows in the doomed steps of the mysterious immigrant.
While pathologists in Arizona try to figure out who John Doe 10-1558 really is, Bernal travels to Honduras, where the mystery man’s travels apparently began.
Bernal spends much of the movie talking to fellow travelers headed north to enter the United States illegally.
The hybrid storytelling format dramatizes not only the surge in immigrant deaths—the pathologists are trying to identify about 700 corpses—but also the personal plight of those compelled to risk their lives in search of a better life.
Bernal and Silver said after the film’s first screening Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival that the film grew out of a series of short films, called “The Invisibles,” that can be seen on Youtube.
Silver said he was compelled to merge nonfiction and narrative filmmaking in large part because “our main character was not alive.” In order to help explain how the unidentified man came to his end, the director said, “was to act out the living part of the journey.”
Bernal, the Mexican-born star of “Y Tu Mamá También,” said that many of the people he met recognized him as an actor, “They let us live this with them. They wanted to show their journey as well,” he said, and also let their families know “that they are OK” and survived the trip.