“Good fences make good neighbours.” Tell that to the US, which shares a fence with Central America. Tell it to Central America, desperation-driven to test that fence a thousand times or more a year; and then to test the deadlier keep-out zone of the Arizona Desert. Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a documentary produced by Gael García Bernal and directed by Marc Silver, starts with a sight nearly routine for Tucson area locals: the rotting corpse of a migrant, curled up near a cactus. Tattooed on his chest: the words “Dayani Cristal”. Autopsy verdict (unofficial): died of hope.
In a clever wheeze – which unfortunately begins to seem just that – actor/producer García Bernal embeds himself as a pretend migrant, retracing the dead Honduran’s journey. Dusty roads; dangerous borders; dodgy soup kitchens; dazzling sway of the trans-Mexico journey atop the train called La Bestia.
Do we buy a famous Mexican movie star going native with the indigent? (Why don’t they all shout: “Ooh look, it’s Gael García Bernal!”) More interesting – more heartbreaking – is the Stateside battle to sort and identify the tragedies. The Arizona cops and pathologists reach a groping hand towards the south, across that damn fence, and say: “Can you help us? Is this man/woman/child yours?” The identity of the man at the beginning is finally uncovered, like a wound still bleeding under the bandage of time. We meet the wife and family, inconsolable. From them, more than from García Bernal, we learn the cruelty of a system of hope in which the longing for a better life is the bait to lure people to an untimely death.