To the individual enduring it, sorrow seems a lonely, defenseless emotion, one from which others are too quick to look away. Shared and felt en masse, however, it can become something different: a galvanizing force, a wall, not diminished in pain but not diminished by it either. Ai Weiwei’s stirring new documentary “Vivos” runs on a vast, roiling current of such sorrow. Portraying the devastated families of 49 Mexican students in the Guerrero region who were either killed or forcibly disappeared following a police raid, it’s a study of grief both in unresolved limbo and in determined action — thwarted either way by a national scourge of institutional corruption that the public is forced to take as given.
Unspooling in Sundance’s non-competitive Documentary Premieres strand, “Vivos” represents a slight departure from the Chinese artist-activist’s last two feature-length docs, “The Rest” and “Human Flow,” both of which took on the global refugee crisis with heart-on-sleeve anguish — the latter with particular big-picture heft. “Vivos” is unsurprisingly a more intimate enterprise, ripped not from worldwide headlines but from a human rights scandal still struggling to be heard beyond one immediately affected, heartsore community. Just as “Human Flow’s” Venice competition berth gave that film an arthouse profile not afforded any of his previous films, “Vivos” should parlay its Sundance platform and its shattering material into select theatrical distribution and broader streaming-based availability.
“Vivos” opens on a mist-shrouded rural road, a serene, melancholy tableau sporadically cut by passing traffic. It’s an ambiguous image that gains in power once the film details the events that prompted it. On September 26, 2014, in the Mexican city of Iguala, a bus convoy carrying a large group of student activists from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college — en route to Mexico City to commemorate the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre — was violently intercepted by police and other masked attackers. Six students were killed, while another 43 were abducted, their fate and whereabouts unknown to this date. A government investigation concluded the missing students, all men, had been handed over to the local Guerreros Unidos drug cartel and executed. Subsequent evidence, following an inquiry by an independent human rights commission, casts doubt on that theory, pointing to a cover-up in line with the Mexican authorities’ manifold abuses of institutional power.
That the case has been at an impasse for several years, with hope slipping and no new details emerging, makes it a tricky subject for documentary treatment: With no recourse to new information, Ai Weiwei is wise to make that very state of limbo the film’s primary focus. Shot between March 2018 and March 2019 by a five-person camera team (including the director), “Vivos” is most powerful at its most plainly observational. Footage of the missing students’ family members going about their daily domestic routines — whether sweeping floors, tending crops or making flatbreads — under the daily weight of unresolved grief is heart-sinking, with their own reflections on these pained, suspended years delivered in candid voiceover.
After “The Rest” eschewed the sweeping, National Geographic-style formal techniques that marked “Human Flow,” the approach here is even more restrained: The subjects’ emotional burdens lend the film a weight that doesn’t warrant much further editorializing. That said, Ai Weiwei the visual artist isn’t entirely absent from proceedings. There is some deliberate, even unsubtle, image-making here that hits home: various incomplete family-portrait compositions, with the missing members present only in photographs. Gradually, this material is interspersed with more rigid talking-head contributions from a selection of journalists and legal experts, who provide the film with worthwhile factual context and investigative drive, but slightly undermine its elegiac mood-building.
“Vivos” is most effective when it doesn’t take a third-person view of those affected, but rather lets them tell their own increasingly rousing story. For eventually, this catalog of close-up suffering does coalesce into something more communal in spirit, as the families join forces to take their sorrow and fury to the streets of Mexico City, marching and protesting under the rallying cry that lends the film its title: “¡Vivos, se los llevaron! Vivos, los queremos!” (“Alive, they took them! Alive, we want them back!”) In doing so, of course, they’re joining a wider national cause: Their missing sons are among over 40,000 people who have been similarly disappeared without resolution. “When I’m out, I’m better; when I’m home, I feel like someone is locking me up,” says one mother of the missing, encapsulating the film’s view of grief shared and strengthened.
Thus does “Vivos” build from a quiet, sensitive diary of pain into a kind of solemn paean to activism itself. At least one crushing edit, however, shows the mountain of institutional indifference they’re up against, as we cut from an impassioned protest outside government buildings to the depopulated aftermath at the end of the day. Custodians scrub spray-painted slogans from glass doors, to nary a second glance from departing civil servants. It won’t be the last time they do this: On all sides of this tragedy, life soldiers cruelly, dully on.