‘Vivos’: Film Review | Sundance 2020

Chinese artist and documaker Ai Weiwei explores the aftermath of the murder and forced disappearance of a convoy of students in Mexico in ‘Vivos.’

If Human Flow, Ai Weiwei’s uncompromising 2017 documentary about global immigration, challenged the viewer to contemplate the seemingly limitless universe of displaced persons roaming the planet, his compassionate, socially conscious new film Vivos takes the opposite tack. Focusing on a small rural area in Mexico and one terrible event that happened there on a certain day in 2014, Vivos minutely examines the after-effects of an armed attack on several busloads of students from a teachers’ college, in which both police and the Mexican army seem to have been involved.

Depicting a crime against humanity that outrages the social conscience, the film is another notable social-political statement by the Chinese director and artist, who is best known for his exhibitions and installations. Lacking a strong organizing idea, it is mainly a string of moving individual interviews with the victims’ devastated families. But as one heartbreaking interview follows another for almost two hours, it becomes a case of the trees obscuring the forest, and the message is lost in a jungle of undeveloped ideas. A more disciplined screenplay and running time could certainly have made the material more compelling and less repetitive.

The Bottom Line

The touching but disorganized vision of a collective tragedy.

The laid-back pace is evident right from the beginning, which shows everyday scenes in a mountain village. We learn that on the night of Sept. 26, 2014, five buses carrying young men who were studying to become teachers were inexplicably attacked by the police in Guerrero, a state plagued by narcotics trafficking. The final toll was six dead, dozens wounded and 43 students who vanished into thin air, never to be heard from again.

Five years later, the distressed relatives have organized themselves into a group of angry activists who demonstrate regularly in public places and urban areas, even in parliament, to demand that authorities reveal the truth about the attack and bring the 43 students home alive. (It is mentioned in passing that the latter are a miniscule part of 40,000 Mexicans who were officially missing as of 2018.)

Another question raised is whether the students were political activists who were specifically targeted by the authorities for elimination or intimidation (their school is briefly described as a hotbed of radical thought). A government cover-up seems likely when the official version claims that the attackers burnt the bodies of the 43 in a bonfire — but the farmers know how long that would take, and it would be impossible on a night when it was pouring rain.

Rather than clarify any of these points the filmmaker cuts in some inconclusive opinions from human rights lawyers, journalists and other experts. Vivos aims for the heart but has no answers or theories of its own, and the audience, like the families, is left wondering whether the police, the army, the drug cartels or high-ranking political authorities ordered the attack, and why. At one point it is suggested that the authorities themselves don’t really know what happened.

The film is perhaps most memorable for its compassion toward the impoverished peasant families who, after five years of not knowing the fate of their loved ones, are living in an anguishing emotional limbo. Yet the grieving mothers, fathers and wives who talk so openly to the filmmaker are not passive victims. The courageous demonstrations they organize recall the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo who, 40 years ago, demanded back the children stolen under the Argentine dictatorship.  

Though at least two of the five credited DPs (Ai Weiwei and Ma Yan) are the same as the cinematographers on Human Flow, these films have very different aesthetics. Here the Mexican atmosphere is conveyed through close-ups of the human face, wildly colorful interiors and lush tropical fields, whose eye-catching richness suggests an assertion of life and the continuity of tradition.

Production companies: AWW Germany
Director, producer, screenwriter: Ai Weiwei
Directors of photography: Ai Weiwei, Ernesto Pardo, Carlos F. Rossini, Bruno Santamaria Razo, Ma Yan
Editor: Niels Pagh Andersen
Music: Jens Bjornkjaer
World sales: Cinephil
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
112 minutes