Documentary Filmmaking and Social Change

Mexican Actor and Director Gael García Bernal Speaks at Concordia about Films that Challenge the ‘Established Narrative’

Actor Gael García Bernal spoke as part of the Concordia Student Union’s Speaker Series about films that reflect social change. Photo Brandon Johnston

The body of a man lies in the heat of the Sonoran Desert. It’s not an uncommon sight for the Arizona border police who find him.

The area is known as the corridor of death. Every year, hundreds of South American undocumented migrants die there trying to cross into the United States.

Often, the bodies remain unidentified. But this man is marked with a particular tattoo: the name “Dayani Cristal.” Who is he? And what happened to him?

The documentary film Who is Dayani Cristal is a quest to find answers. In it, actor Gael García Bernal plays the role of the unidentified man. He follows the trail that thousands of migrants take, at great risk, in search of a better life.

Bernal, who also co-produced the film, visited Montreal this past weekend as part of the Montreal International Documentary Festival. Screenings of the film were held on Saturday and Sunday.

At the invitation of the Concordia Student Union, the actor also spoke at Concordia on Friday about his involvement with cinema and documentary filmmaking.

“I will always be in [a] lack of words to explain how much joy I feel [when] acting,” said Bernal. “I have built my closest relationships through acting. […] I’ve been put into situations that no other drug has put me [in].”

About sharing the screen with real migrants in Dayani Cristal, he added, “There is something cathartic about it, about experiencing that unity. That’s where my sort of spirituality comes across—through the game of theatre and film.”

Bernal is often described as an actor who chooses projects with social or political undertones, and this leads some to view him as an activist. But listening to him talk about his career, it’s clear that he doesn’t see himself as an activist in the way that most people understand the term.

First, the Mexico native is motivated by a sense of identity. Bernal credits the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a revolutionary leftist movement in southern Mexico, for pushing his generation to question and define who they are outside the prescribed norm.

Logically, this leads to a rejection of authority. And this is what his militancy is about. But let’s be clear—Bernal is no Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. He’s only played him on screen.

“[Guevara] thought, at that point, that the way out was to do an armed movement,” said Bernal, who portrayed the guerrilla leader in the award-winning 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries. “And he was right, in his time. But I do not think that is the way, nowadays. I don’t think it’s my way.”

For Bernal, the battle is in making sure independent films are produced and seen. He pursues this goal with friends and longtime colleagues through Canana, a production company, and Ambulante, a travelling film festival, “without the support or the paternity of a bigger company.”

“We have a very incredible hub of personal expression that has to be defended,” said Bernal. “We try to keep on doing these films […] that challenge [and] go around the established narrative.”

At least one audience member grew disillusioned with the event—or her expectations of it—yelling at one point that she wanted to hear more about social causes and less about the actor’s career and persona.

It was then that Bernal, who is currently completing a master’s degree in media and communication at the European Graduate School, got into theoretical territory.

He explained that he and his partners choose to feature topics they consider important, but he doesn’t believe in making movies with social change as the main purpose. To say that a film has to change something “is quite irresponsible and also quite damaging,” he said.

Instead, he continued, the social change already exists on some level. And, if a movie is pertinent to that change, a synergy is formed.

“That transcendence has to be an accident,” he said.

And this is where Bernal differs from the hero-battling-evil stereotype to which modern audiences are accustomed. For him, change is a collective, societal phenomenon.

“Good films are just these catalysts that are put there and who knows what the audience is going to take away from that,” he said. “The social change happens with alchemy of some sort.”