The Sonora Desert in Arizona is freezing at night, brutally hot in the day. The documentary Who is Dayani Cristal? reveals that the infrastructure dealing with illegal immigration into the United States from points south is likewise hot, cold, and unnecessarily deadly.
We meet Americans dedicated to identifying, even humanizing, the bodies found there. But the system is by design a trap. Director Marc Silver covers one immigrant’s journey, starting with his death.
He shows the workaday investigation by American officials and foreign consulates, and finds the people who knew the man, while Mexican actor Gael García Bernal retraces his migration, jumping on trains and bivouacking in shelters. (Most documentary acting is a drag, but Bernal is part in character, part investigator, and it works.)
This film is up to all kinds of things: It hangs on to its mystery, rakes up public policy arguments, gets close up on details (like fingerprinting a dead man), gives a lot of space to emotions, and follows Bernal from Honduras to Arizona. The cinematography is exquisite and sometimes it alone moves the story.
But it all remains cohesive, even poetic, and puts what had to have been formidable reporting to excellent use. This is the rare documentary with a spoiler — by the end, the title question is answered, though many terrible questions remain about how we should receive the ambitious poor people who are coming to America.