Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist who left his home country in 2015, has been making films for close to two decades, though he’s best known for his non-film art projects. That may have changed with his 2017 documentary Human Flow, about the global migrant and refugee crisis, which brought his work into multiplexes and arthouse instead of just museums. His newest feature-length documentary, Vivos, is his most direct and emotionally resonant film to date. It looks unsparingly at a humanitarian crisis that has dogged both Mexico and The United States in recent decades with a sustained fury that stays just below the surface, always present but never overpowering.
Vivos concerns the 2014 mass kidnapping of teaching students in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. The students, members of a rural teaching college, were first attacked by police officers during a protest. Police killed six people in the hail of gunfire and injured another 25. The fate of those 31 people is well-established, but the other 43 students were “disappeared” in the aftermath of the attack, never to be heard from again. A subsequent government-led investigation determined that local police, who were in cahoots with drug cartels, took the students into custody. The police handed the students over to the cartel membe3rs, who killed them, incinerated the bodies, and dumped the remains in a nearby river to be washed away. At the time, the government referred to this as the “historic truth,” a chillingly Orwellian turn of phrase. It both suggests the supposedly definitive answer was only a temporary explanation, while paradoxically establishing the explanation as a definitive matter of record. Outside investigators would later determine this narrative to be (at least partly) false; the timeline of when the students were believed to have been incinerated didn’t line up, and officials higher up the chain of command were believed to be involved.
Vivos tells this story, in great detail and with enormous sensitivity, but it’s not a true-crime documentary. We don’t even get significant details about the kidnapping and the investigation until halfway through the film. Instead, he focuses on the families and loved ones of the abducted men. The bulk of the film examines their daily lives and how they struggle to find normalcy in the wake of a tragedy. Ai constantly finds a sense of stillness in his shots, as when he films his subjects in moments of contemplation, or rest. The slowed-down pace suggests how their lives have come to a halt with the loss of their sons. The film opens and closes with complimentary shots in which the camera moves slowly forward down a mist-shrouded road as it approaches a bend around a mountain. The images suggest the path those buses might have taken before the students were abducted. But the foggy air also can represent the cloud of lies and half-truths that will most likely prevent these families from knowing what really happened to their children.
If there’s one misstep, it’s in the film’s title: Vivos, meaning “alive” in Spanish. After the independent investigators determine that the “historic truth” is incomplete at best and fabrication at worst, the families, many of which have become activists in the memory of their sons, become convinced that their boys are still alive somewhere. “Alive, they took them! Alive, we want them back!” they chant during their public demonstrations. The families, in their grief, hope against hope that the government had kept the students alive and hidden them away, an outcome that strains credulity and logic. If a final answer is ever delivered, it’s likely to be a heartbreaking rebuke of that hope, but Ai seems to sympathize with those hopes in a way that gives them fuel. It’s understandable to not want to take away the last bit of hope from people who have already lost so much, but that doesn’t excuse the move. Perhaps these families will be successful in reforming Mexico’s government, military, and police, or even the US drug trade and drug war policies that led to this bloodshed. But that final bit of false hope is just one more indignity for them to suffer.