From Rory Kennedy's documentary short "The Fence" to Cary Fukunaga's bracing-yet-lyrical "Sin Nombre," the border experience and America's immigration failures have been reliable Sundance staples in recent years, so it was fitting to have Marc Silver and Gael Garcia Bernal's "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" kicking off the 2013 Festival on Thursday (January 17) night.
 
"Who Is Dayani Cristal?" takes the familiar backdrop and attempts to present it in a complicated way, creating a well-intentioned documentary that makes admirable intellectual sense on paper, but becomes an occasional semiotic nightmare in execution. 
 
On one hand, had this been yet another straight-ahead story about "The Corridor of Death" in the Arizona desert across the Mexican border, I'd have probably complained at its lack of inspiration. On the other hand, if the inspiration becomes frustrating and obfuscating more than illuminating... Well, that's a struggle. 
 
More after the break on "Who Is Dayani Cristal?," which is playing in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance...
 
While Silver is listed as the director of "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" and Bernal is credited as executive producer and star, It's "A Marc Silver and Gael Garcia Bernal Film."
 
The story begins in August of 2010. A body is found in the Arizona desert. This is not an uncommon thing. Since 2000 and 2001, roughly 200+ bodies have been found each year in the Sonora, as changes in US immigration policy have forced illegals from safer, urban access points into deadly journeys in the wilderness. The desert has become an overlapping series of crime scenes, with most of the bodies stripped of all identification. That's literally hundreds or thousands of John Does whose bodies are either piled up in freezers or eventually cremated. It's the very definition of a dehumanizing process. But for a group of forensic anthropologists, investigators and international liaisons, hope lies in an often futile quest to give names to the bodies and, ideally, return the bodies to loved ones South of the Border anxiously word on the availability of the American Dream.
 
In this case, the bloated, fly-covered corpse in the desert comes with a mystery. On his chest, inked in ornate letters, are the words "Dayani Cristal." The investigators are stymied. Is it a name? Is it a location? Is it a gang affiliation? 
 
Ultimately, if I'm being frank, it's a red herring. Nothing in the name really helps the sleuths in Arizona, but what it does is it gives this particular body an identifying characteristic. [Treating the tattoo as a puzzle to be solved isn't a huge mistake, but it also adds nothing. I guessed the answer instantly and you will as well.] In one of three interlocking narratives, we somewhat follow the weary, frustrated gumshoes as they show the tools of their often unavoidably ghoulish trade -- The need to remove and rehydrate desiccated hands to get proper fingerprints is just one example -- and pontificate on the time-honored truths regarding the importance of the migrant workforce to the American economy and the sad ironies of dying to help your family get a new life. It's familiar stuff, which doesn't mean it isn't powerful if you happen to agree with the ideology. I agree completely with most of that ideology, but I felt like the work these people were doing illustrated their message better without having them articulate that message directly. 
 
The forensics and the reclamation of the John Does make for a fresh angle, but not an angle that "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" is committed to, because despite a brisk 80 minute running time, its focus is divided.
 
See, we know that the mystery will eventually be solved, because we're soon introduced to the John Doe's family and to his friends back in Honduras. This is a sad story of loss, but in many ways it's also a morbidly happy story, because all of those Arizona John Does represent countless loved ones who will never get answers, who will never get closure. In "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" there are answers and even if they're awful answers, there's a blessing to that.
 
The segment back in Honduras is highly sentimentalized and doesn't feel of a piece with the rest of the movie, but I absolutely understand its purpose. If you just tell the story of the investigators in Arizona, not only does this become a story inflected only through an American perspective, but it compartmentalizes our John Doe merely as an illegal immigrant who died. Being able to spend time in his hometown gives him a name. It gives him a context. It makes him into a person who lived. It's far easier to ignore a locker filled with preserved bodies if they're nameless, spouseless, motherless, childless. 
 
The more problematic segment is the one which actually opens the movie and features Bernal. Basically, the "y tu mama tambien" star is retracing the John Doe's journey from Honduras, tracing the various border crossings and modes of conveyance, from crowded buses, to perching precariously atop the vast train line called The Beast to bobbing unimpeded on the inflatable rafts that clog the river between Guatemala and Mexico. He's chatting with locals, he's visiting the missions that cater to migrants preparing to make that last step into the United States, he commiserates with travelers who have made the same trip multiple times. But mostly, he's a distraction.
 
In his first appearance, it seems as if Bernal is playing John Doe and that the movie will be utilizing reenactments. But no. He's playing sex symbol and internationally known movie star and producer Gael Garcia Bernal. His very presence adds a layer of contrivance and artificiality that cripples the movie around it. A movie that was nothing but Gael Garcia Bernal doing this trip and learning the migrant experience on his own could have been interesting, a cross between "The Motorcycle Diaries" and a Tony Bourdain travel show. But when you have one segment with real investigators doing real forensics and another segment with a real family experiencing real grief, having a third segment in which an actor with perfect teeth dons a ratting hat and dirty jeans and  tags along with real migrants rings hollow. Bernal has a film crew. He has a familiar visage. He's doing something which should be fraught with tension, but he negates the jeopardy. Instead, what should be provocative and real becomes a vanity project, which is exactly the wrong note to hit. 
 
[Acknowledging the artifice was the only way this could have worked. Bernal had to say at some point that he was going through this process for a movie because of his interest in the experience and he had to have somebody somewhere recognize him from "Goal!" Instead, it's just Gael Garcia Bernal randomly popping up placing and viewers having no idea if the people he's with know who he really is, know why he's being followed by a camera and know what this exposure will do for their visibility. It's a mess.]
 
"Who Is Dayani Cristal?" was shot by Marc Silver & Pau Esteve Birba and all three segments are gorgeously shot, no matter who was holding the camera. But maybe it's too well shot? There's no distinguishing between the three story arcs and while I don't require any sort of "Traffic"-style color-coding, I also think that some differentiation would have been helpful. If you have an actor sitting atop a train beautifully traversing the Mexican countryside, there's no space between "Who Is Dayani Cristal?"and "Sin Nombre." One becomes as real as the other and "authenticity" becomes an aesthetic conceit, rather than any sort of claim to genuine truth.
 
I admire "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" for attempting to tell this story on these three tiers. The attempt to tell a forensic mystery, a bittersweet family melodrama and a celebrity-driven travelogue simultaneously offers at least the prospect of actually telling this familiar story in a different way that's both political and humane, that's both polemic and tear-jerker. Doing all three on only 80 minutes, though, leaves each segment feeling anemic. The American side of the investigation turns out not to be that complicated. The Honduras family scenes are touching, but one-dimensional. And the Bernal scenes are problematic in the ways listed above. In a better movie, the triptych structure would have been enriching. Here, it feels more like sleight of hand than anything with these sorts of life-and-death stakes should really feel.