North to South: How Marc Silver explored an immigrant's journey with Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Who is Dayani Cristal?'

Who is Dayani Cristal? explores the current politically charged southern border immigration issue in the USA today, but takes an intriguing approach. Part travelogue and part forensic investigation; the film is split between a documentation of the painstaking work various agencies have to undertake in order to discover the identity of one particular immigrant who’s body was found near the US border (a sadly frequent event,as the film shows), and other scenes showing Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal retracing the dead man’s steps. Director Marc Silver, who collaborated with Bernal on the project, kindly agreed to a short interview discussing his decision to go with this approach, his attempts to ‘humanise' the debate about immigration, and what he hopes the film will achieve in the thorny debate about what to do about the incessant waves of human life that keep coming north to the US in search of a better, more safer life. 

The film itself is reviewed here.

Who is Dayani Cristal is out now across the UK. Director Marc Silver will attend a QA Vice Q&A at the Everyman cinema following a screening of the film on the 29th August.


I'd like to know how you came across the project and ended up working with Gael Garcia Bernal. How did you two share the workload and exchange ideas?

MS: Most of my previous short films and art installations have been about human rights, and this time I wanted to focus on the wall between the USA and Mexico. We launched a website that asked people to help in our research and send in stories about divisions between rich and poor. One of these stories was about police finding unidentified skulls in the deserts of Arizona.

I remember seeing an image of a Border Patrol agent holding a skull in a vast empty landscape which I later learned was the Sonora desert. I thought that following the investigation into an unidentified skull was a fascinating and poetic way of exploring the dehumanisation of migrants.  I literally asked myself, 'What can a skull in an empty desert tell you about the world?' My question was less a 'who done it?', but rather: ‘what happened?' 

I began gaining permissions and shooting the documentary elements following the Search and Rescue units as they recovered remains from the desert. Whilst establishing the story along the border, Gael and I made four short films for Amnesty International about the human rights abuses of migrants travelling through Mexico. This gave us a very deep insight into the magnitude of the journey before migrants get anywhere near the U.S. border. The trip also acted as a recce for the journey we would have to take in retracing our dead person’s steps.

I mainly focussed on the visual aesthetic, and the North to South journey; the discovery of the body to the arrival home. In other words, I focused on the documentary elements, and the relationships with the family, government departments and NGO’s. Gael focussed on the South to North journey through Guatemala and Mexico, as well as working on the best way to tell the story.

What led to the decision to go with the particular structure of the film: part forensic investigation and part 'travelogue'?

MS: Given that our main character was an unidentified, dead person, we wanted to craft a narrative that built identity and humanity as the story unfolded. We needed a device that turned someone with no identity at the beginning into a living, breathing human being by the end; someone audiences could empathise with and feel for. We chose to do this by literally following the journey the man took, from his home in Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico, all the way to the exact spot where he died in the U.S. This ‘retracing the footsteps’ by Gael Garcia Bernal, l based on the testimony of the dead man's family and friends. This  meant that not only would the audience learn about the magnitude and dangers of the journey, but they would also get to meet real people making the same journey. Not only were we humanising one person, but we were humanising migrants in general and deconstructing the 'illegal' or, 'alien' stereotype.

I was struck by the cinematography, lighting and colour palette, particularly in your use of close ups, for example in the forensic labs sections. Can you talk about that aspect of the film and the choices you and the DoP made. It seemed very 'cinematic' to me, for want of a better word.

MS: The film was shot by me (the director) on a Canon 7D, mainly using 2 prime lenses and using only available light. That is all I could afford at the time. Looking back now, I think my minimal understanding of Spanish meant I filmed more ‘intensely’ than I might have otherwise, making sure each image was telling a story without using any verbal language.

I was keen to make the morgue scenes with the remains of those who had died have a sense of dignity about them, rather than be ‘shocking’ or ‘voyeuristic’. I wanted to film them as I had filmed the living people, the migrants, who were still on the road and had not yet reached the life threatening desert crossing.

What was the biggest challenge shooting the film, were there any things you couldn't achieve or had to change?

MS: The biggest challenge was the statistical odds against us. Of the 2000 bodies recovered from the desert over the last decade, 700 still remain unidentified. The vast majority of migrants do not carry any form of identification. It takes a huge amount of time and effort across several agencies and countries to repatriate remains to families. We wanted to tell a story that followed the whole process - from the discovery of someone in the desert, to the forensic investigation into their identity, to finding their family, to returning the body to the family, and being at the funeral. On top of this, we wanted to find a family and a community who would want to share their story and emotions with us, and in turn humanise the dialogue around immigration. 

The most challenging single moment for me was when I returned with the body to Honduras. The airline had actually left the body in a U.S. airport when we transited because the plane was full, and they insisted on carrying 'luggage before bodies'. I arrived in Honduras to meet 30 family members waiting at the airport, and the cargo handler explained to all of us that there was no coffin on the plane. When eventually the body was returned home and the community were lowering the coffin into the grave, many people were demanding that the coffin be opened so that they could ensure it was actually the right person in the coffin. There have been stories of the wrong body being returned to the wrong family. I remember turning the camera off as they attempted to unscrew the coffin lid, but fortunately it was the wrong type of screwdriver and the coffin remained sealed.

Politically American immigration is a hot button issue that the US congressional system really seems unable to grasp in a long term way. What immediate steps would you like to see happen within the US government? What do you think is possible in reality?

MS: I want audiences to ask themselves how far they would go for their own family if push came to shove? I hope that we have created a documentary film that allows the audience the chance to leave the cinema with a feeling of deep empathy - that shifts their perspective on any prejudices they may have towards so called 'illegals' and 'aliens'. I want them to look at migrants in the knowledge that their journey did not just start easily on the other side of the wall, but that they had to leave loved ones for very universal reasons, whilst hoping they will survive an incredibly dangerous journey across Mexico and into the U.S. This before they even try and get a job. I want them to feel proud of the humanitarian work Americans are doing in helping to end other people’s pain by repatriating remains to families.

In relation to where current immigration policy is at - where there is a trade off being discussed between legalisation of the undocumented and increased border security - I want people debating this to realise that increased border security will most likely lead to more deaths

Who is Dayani Cristal is out now across the UK. Director Marc Silver will attend a QA Vice Q&A at the Everyman cinema following a screening of the film on the 29th August.


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.