Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei on Exploring Mexican Trauma in Sundance Doc 'Vivos'

Ai Weiwei
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

The new documentary from the famed dissident investigates the 'forcible disappearance' of 43 Mexican students on September 26, 2014.

Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist, dissident and full-time provocateur, has always punched up: taking on authority and authoritarianism through his work, whether its the Chinese government (in the many works of art that made him famous) or the European Union, whose indifference to the plight of refugees he eviscerated in his first documentary film, the shocking cine-essay Human Flow (2017).

In his latest film, Vivos, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival today (Cinephil is handling worldwide sales), Ai's target is the Mexican government and the culture of corruption and violence he sees behind the events of September 26, 2014, when a convoy of students was attacked by police forces and other masked assailants. Six people were killed, and 43 of the students “forcibly disappeared.” Mexico has said it was local police cooperating with drug cartels that were responsible but, in Vivos, Ai Weiwei challenges this “historic truth,” questioning the real sources behind the country's crisis of violence. While doing so, he focuses on the families left behind and how, despite their loss and trauma, they are determined to discover the truth.

Ai Weiwei spoke via email with The Hollywood Reporter's European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough ahead of the film's premiere. 

How did you first hear of the events of Sept. 26, 2014, and what compelled you to travel to Mexico to tell this story?

In 2016, I was invited by the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico to do an art exhibition. This was my initial exposure to the disappearance of the 43 students in Mexico. I have long desired to learn about Mexican culture. It has some similarities with Chinese culture, as well as many differences. I was looking forward to learning more. The curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, took me to Centro Prodh, a local human rights organization, where I met the families of a dozen of the missing students, and I had a short talk with them about social justice. What they were experiencing were concerns I have long been involved with — social justice and how it is maintained, and how individuals in a society can strive for fairness and justice. Their case had many similarities with what I experienced in China. After this meeting, I wanted to make a film. It became the basis for my art exhibition and provided me with an opportunity to understand Mexican society.

How familiar were you with the history and culture of Mexico before starting this film?

Before I made this film, my knowledge of Mexico was superficial. Of course, I had some basic knowledge about Mayan culture and Mexican art and culture. This film helped me to have a deeper understanding of Mexico, how pervasive religion is in daily life, how its people view death and how patient, hospitable and tolerant they are. These qualities are obvious in groups and in individuals.

At the same time,  I also saw the criminal side of Mexican society. The Mexican government, police and army have been involved in many major incidents, such as the case of the 43 disappeared students. They were involved in these cases, often as active participants. During investigations, they use various methods to cover up, mislead or provide false evidence. Mexico has the most kind and honest people, yet the most sinister criminal gangs. Not every society has such characteristics, and this is a tragic story. I learned this through my experience in Mexico.

We interviewed many people, including the families of the victims, experts and human rights activists. We entered into some of the most terrifying areas, and our producers discouraged us from going because it was the most marginal, impoverished area of Mexican society. Through this film, I learned a great deal about the human rights situation in North America, the political relationship between Mexico and the United States and how Mexico has suffered due to various U.S. policies, including the War on Drugs and its immigration policies, which have caused sustained damage toward Mexican society.

How did your approach on this film differ with your previous movies?

Vivos uses a structured narrative to show how a group of families survive after losing family members; how those in a society devoid of justice live on, even though the content and quality of their lives has completely changed. In Vivos I focused on how to reflect such a cultural phenomenon. The disappearance of 43 students is not a special occurrence. Over the years, people have disappeared every day in Mexico and homicide cases go unsolved. Most cases of disappearance are considered to be related to drugs or gangs, and the society has failed to given a satisfactory answer for these crimes.

The film is not an investigative documentary. It puts aside the facts uncovered by investigations into the case, paying more attention to how human survival is maintained under such circumstances. How does an ordinary family, after losing a loved one, face this society? How do they face themselves in their domestic lives? They must confront a reality they are unprepared for, which is the need to demand justice from the government and society.

What was the most difficult aspect of making this movie?

The biggest problem in making such a movie is to face families who have already suffered from so much hardship. The families and loved ones of the 43 victims have already lost trust in this society. For many years, no one has attempted to resolve their case and the Mexican government has refused to uphold justice on their behalf. When justice in a society is missing, it is not only the victims that are harmed but the entire society, which loses its trust in the government and in the idea of social justice. Under these conditions, it is difficult to reach the families of the victims. For them, the question remains whether these filmmakers can truly help them. Trust needs to be gradually established, and we have made great efforts to build it with the families. Maria Luisa Aguilar, of Centro Prodh, has worked with these families for a long time. She not only helped us better understand their story, but, more importantly, helped build trust with the families. We hired local producers and multiple camera teams. The photographers were documentary directors themselves and have long been concerned with social issues in Mexico. This makes it possible to create a film with more depth, delicacy and richness of emotion.

The night of Sept. 26 was a singular event but in your film you place it in a larger context. What is the bigger story that has been missed in reporting on the event?

People are surprised when they hear about the disappearance of the 43 students, but people should be aware that this is only one case in a series of disappearances that occur every day. 90 percent of shootings in Mexico, according to government figures, are left unsolved. Impunity is one of the biggest social problems in Mexico. At the very least, it shows that justice does not exist in this society, and that the government and the judicial system are corrupted. Corruption prevents the politics and culture of this society from healthily growing, and those made to suffer are ordinary people.

Netflix has produced a docuseries, The 43, which also questions the Mexican government's official account of the event. What do you think your film adds to the story and contributes to the discussion?

I haven't seen any other films about this case. From the beginning, I avoided creating an investigative documentary. We did not want this film to satisfy the audience’s curiosity toward what happened or how it happened. What I wanted to know is: When a family member doesn’t return, what kind of trauma does the Mexican society and culture undergo? How does this hurt social justice and the nation? I think this is a deeper problem.

What I want to discuss is Mexican culture, not the case itself, and the intention should be very different. Mexico is not the only country facing problems with social justice. For example, China’s problems in Xinjiang and Hong Kong are not simply regional concerns, but under an authoritarian culture, the very concept of justice is harmed and no one is unaffected. This kind of culture will impact others as well.

What connects this film with your previous work — as a filmmaker and an artist?

As an artist, my main activity is to observe reality. Through this observation, I form my own language and way of expression to confront the problems of reality. As a filmmaker, my films are concerned with what has happened, what is the significance of the incident and the cultural background of what took place. These are the issues that make me anxious and enable me to recognize the true relationship between myself and this society.

I cannot accept the simple, mainstream representation of these issues. Therefore, personal experience has played a key role in my art and films. Only through personal experience could I form my current point of view.

Mexico is a long way from Hong Kong but the people there are also taking to the streets to protest government corruption and injustice. What responsibility do artists have in addressing injustice in the real world?

Mexico and Hong Kong are several thousand kilometers apart geographically, but on the issue of social justice they are in the same boat. They both face governments that are reluctant to show the truth, or unwilling to participate in a discussion about the truth. It is miserable for those living in a society that lacks truth and justice, especially because it could last for a long time, even generations. As an artist, I have a responsibility to express this emotion.

After I finished Vivos, I immediately became involved in another documentary about Hong Kong. Why must I participate in these politicized films? Because today’s culture is completely inseparable from politics, whether you are willing or not is irrelevant. These are the questions directly in front of me and I must respond.