This film is connecting immigrants' bodies and remains with their families

The World

The film "Who is Dayani Cristal" generated ample buzz on the film festival circuit. And, just to be clear, that's not because the film's lead role is played by famed Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal.

"Who is Dayani Cristal" follows the journey of a body found in the Arizona desert. The name "Dayani Cristal" is tattooed on the body's sunburned chest. Bernal's character walks in the shoes of the unnamed man, tracking his journey from Central America, on the treacherous train ride to the Mexican border, and eventually to Arizona, to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

Alongside the film's 15 screenings in the US this month, it's promoting a Tucson-based non-profit group called The Missing Migrant Project. In the film, and in real life, the Missing Migrant Project is a small team that cross-checks a growing stack of missing person reports from Mexico and Latin America with the remains of bodies found in the Arizona desert. If there's a match, they work to reunite the remains with family members.

Marc Silver, the film’s co-director, is now a partner with the Missing Migrant Project. Silver tells me his interest in immigration doesn't stem from the standard polarizing debate about immigration. He simply points out the irony that, in this age of openness and connectivity, 35 new walls or barriers have been built around the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall. He began exploring this concept by creating a website that asked visitors to submit their stories about resistance, borders and boundaries.

"One of the stories that we got were images of skulls in the desert," Silver says. "There's nothing more human than seeing a skeleton, literally the insides of all of us. And we wondered what does one skeleton reveal about the world at large?"

What it revealed was a huge surge in the number of unidentified bodies found in the desert between the US and Mexico. In Pima County, Arizona, 171 dead bodies were found in 2012. These migrant bodies and remains were turning up on US soil and there was no systematic way to identify them, let alone reunite them with their families.

The Missing Migrant Project began when Robin Reineke, a doctoral student at the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, agreed to tackle a pile of 800 files on missing persons trying to cross the border. She began to work with Dr. Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist at the medical examiner's office and a professor at the university.

"He handed me a stack of missing persons reports and I started databasing them," recalls Reineke. "I didn't even speak Spanish that first year. I was one of those eager young people who wanted to help, but I realized quickly that this was an escalating problem." We spoke to Reineke last year as she was still adding missing persons reports to the database.

Today, that pile of missing person reports is estimated to number 2,000. Reineke says the Pima-based group now runs one of the more centralized databases across the US-Mexico border for missing persons. "This is a little operation, but we became known among consulates and migrant families," she says. And by the time Marc Silver came to Arizona to film, she realized that we "needed a lot of help."

“It’s a perfect collaboration,” Silver says. “The publicity from the film has been really effective.” On the project’s website, he tells me, they recently created a simple form so visitors can easily fill out information about missing family members for inclusion in the database. “It’s really happening. People are really filling it out. I personally received three or four messages from people who had seen the film.”

Reineke says, thanks to the film, the Missing Migrant Project has been able to get funding from and partnership with organizations like the Ford Foundation — a major non-profit funder in the US. But more than that, she says, Silver’s film accurately portrays the journey a dead migrant's body undergoes once officials pick it up from the desert.

“The way he tells the story is the way we envision it," she says. "It comes from a very humanizing perspective.”

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