Questions on Immigration Raised in New ADFF Film

Director Marc Silver is all about the details. His film “Who is Dayani Cristal?” takes time to emphasize the little things — dirty bus windows, the ...

Oct 26, 2013

Director Marc Silver is all about the details. His film “Who is Dayani Cristal?” takes time to emphasize the little things — dirty bus windows, the corners of a child's smile, a sock sporting the letters USA on its edge. These shots, long and indulgent, fold together in a movie that is nuanced both in its visual aesthetics and content matter.
On its surface, “Who is Dayani Cristal?” revolves around the issue of immigration from Mexico and Central America to the United States — a contentious issue on which people are opinionated, and the opinions are heated. Gazing out from behind the borders of any country in the region, it is easy to adopt clear us-versus-them rhetoric. Many are quick to draw lines between groups, lines just as staunch and dividing as the wall between Mexico and the United States itself.
Outside the region, however, the issue is less immediate, and knowledge is clouded by distance and ignorance. Originally hailing from Britain, Silver saw the need for more dialogue on the topic both within the United States and globally.
"I don't think many people [outside the region] know there is a wall between [the United States] and Mexico," said Silver. "So whilst we are aware of more iconic walls like the Israel-Palestine or [former] Berlin Wall, for me at home, when I mention I'm doing a film on the wall, people have no idea that there's even a wall there."
Material on the immigration issue is often polarized, with U.S.-centric and Mexico-centric accounts colliding across the debate platform. But “Who is Dayani Cristal?” straddles the wall, loping back and forth to include the narratives of a huge range of people. The audience meets a Honduran family with a son who died immigrating to the United States; a famous celebrity and ex-Telenovela star, Gael García Bernal; and a team of workers in a U.S. morgue who attempt to identify the anonymous bodies of deceased immigrants.
Documenting these three perspectives yielded over 100 hours of film. Paring this number down to 80 minutes and then twining the separate stories together took around four years, Silver said.
Much of the film follows the efforts of the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, where officials try to identify the dead body of a man found in the desert between Mexico and Arizona. These pathologists, who veer from weary optimism to a visible, heartbreaking frustration with the status quo, take note of a tattoo on the man's chest: Dayani Cristal.
The forensics team embarks on their search for the life behind the nameless remains. Their quest is set to the clinical tones of the medical office, where bones sit in cabinets and fluorescent lights gleam. In the background of one scene, someone has scribbled the words “skulls in bins” on a whiteboard, followed by serial numbers in shiny blue marker. This pragmatic house of death is jarring to watch, especially given the examiners' wider compassion for the lives they are identifying.
The team’s efforts to put an identity to their John Doe parallel the effect of the entire film, which itself identifies some of the individual names and people affected by this issue. The film is interspersed with dreamy shots of Honduras, scenes of the family this man left behind and the devastation they feel as they trudge through funeral arrangements, painful memories and the slow-burning question of why John Doe — or, as later revealed, Yohan Sandros Martínez — had to leave home in the first place. The film reveals the lives behind the label of immigrant.
Frequently in the U.S., the immigrant is not seen as a person, but rather as a number, a bane or bullet point in a political stance. Jorge Zárate, a senior from Mexico, has strong opinions about immigration reform and mentioned the recurring theme of anonymity as problematic.
"I think part of the biggest challenge is the dehumanizing of the 'illegal immigrant,'" Zarate said. "The demonizing of the immigrant is what makes progress so difficult. Everybody is so obsessed with the fact immigrants are illegal that they forget that they are people (and as such, they have rights) and that they are good for the country overall."
The film works to combat this effect. It gives faces to the issue — faces that are both young and old, joyful and mourning. With the careful, measured movements of someone intruding on a private moment, the film documents the struggles of both Honduran families and U.S. medical examiners. "Who is Dayani Cristal?" takes immigration, a political debate normally littered with statistics, numbers and blank swathes of anonymity, and tells a human story.
"For us, [the film] was always metaphorical for what is going on in the world at large," said Silver. "And when we looked at those images where people are literally holding a skull in their hand in a very Shakespearean way, it made us question what is this one body, what does this skull reveal to you about the world in terms of economics and systems and patterns of migration."
Despite the highly individualized nature of the film, there is a universal undercurrent. The story of immigration, and its shadow of grief and loss, applies to several regions around the world.
"It was a big, global mirror that we figured would resonate with different audiences around the world," Silver added. “So for me, coming from London, the Mediterranean is our equivalent to the desert."
Due to its ubiquity, the issue of immigration has affected many in the NYU Abu Dhabi community. Senior Zachary Stanley, who grew up in Texas, comes from a community where immigration is frequently debated.
"I think that as much as people say that the American dream is dead — a house with a white picket fence and all that jazz — I think that [the dream] is social mobility, or at least the slight chance of it," said Stanley. "I feel a lot of immigrants feel that they will get a chance, or at least give their children a chance, at success and whatever that means for them — a job, a house, citizenship."
With the current immigration patterns of regions around southern Europe, Australia and the UAE, one must wonder if this is an American dream so much as a global phenomenon — one of grand human movement, spurred by a need for survival or improved living conditions and caused by some of the larger globalized systems at work.
"[The division of rich and poor] relates to, for me anyway, big systemic problems that come out of essentially a U.S.-centric, [International Monetary Fund], World Bank way that the global economy has developed over the past 20, 30 years, and that wall is part of that," said Silver.
"I just hope it resonates with audiences [in Abu Dhabi]," added Silver. "And people look at migrants and realize most have made an epic journey to work."
Zoe Hu is features editor. Andres Rodriguez is opinion editor. Email them at 
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