x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Unearthing the identity of a dead man

Director Mark Silver attends the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and talks about his first feature film, Who is Dayani Christel?

Scene from Who is Dayani Cristal, 2013 starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Courtesy Pulse Films
Scene from Who is Dayani Cristal, 2013 starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Courtesy Pulse Films

Who Is Dayani Cristal? set its director on a journey to find out why so many immigrants are dying in the US desert, writes Jess Hill

A tattoo on the chest was the only clue to reveal the identity of the dead man found lying in the depths of the Arizona desert. It read “Dayani Cristal” and Mark Silver was determined to find out who this man was, and film his journey along the way.

Who Is Dayani Cristal? has already won a Cinematography Award for World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, which was a big scoop for Silver, as it is his first feature-length film. The film has its final Abu Dhabi Film Festival screening today. The idea for the movie came six years ago when Silver helped set up a website, www.resistnetwork.com, which featured a story about skeletons found in the Tucson desert area of Arizona. The picture of a cop holding a skull got Silver’s attention and he decided to do some digging.

He found there was a border patrol strategy that meant that while urban areas were being patrolled, police were neglecting the desert, as they assumed the harshness of the terrain would act as a natural deterrent for illegal immigrants trying to enter the country.

“In fact, this policy increased the number of dead people,” says Silver, who is in Abu Dhabi for screenings of his film.” Silver and his crew got permission to go with the search-and-rescue teams out in the desert, then from the Mexican and Honduran consulates, to follow the body all the way back to Honduras.

“We wanted to humanise the dead person, so we made a journey, following the footsteps that Dayani Cristal would have made. That role was played by the Mexican star Gael García Bernal. Even though the story is a local story, the dead body is a metaphor for what it reveals about the patterns of migration all over the world.”

• Who Is Dayani Cristal? is competing as part of the documentary competition. It screens this afternoon at 3.45pm in Marina Mall’s Vox 3