It was pouring rain in Iguala on the night of 26 September 2014. Students from a teachers’ college had hijacked or «borrowed» a bus, as they routinely did, to get to a march in Mexico City, when six were shot, and 43 abducted and disappeared. In the confused aftermath, the government set out an official account it declared to be the «historic truth» — that police had handed the students over to a local drug cartel, who’d killed them in a garbage dump and disposed of their incinerated remains because they’d mistaken them for members of a rival gang. The state’s version has been widely disputed and declared «scientifically impossible» by a panel of experts assembled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Vivos, the latest documentary from Chinese dissident, artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei, which screens at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, portrays the impact of the fateful night on the victims’ families, and a society in which trust in authority has been entirely corroded.
As a documentarian, Ai is ever the artist, with an eye for evocative detail, and an ear for deep, commonly shared humanity within a person’s retelling of their own experience. Investigative rigour is not his strong suit, and on this level, Vivos feels somewhat superficial alongside more extensively researched, recent documentaries on the topic. Julien Elie’s Dark Suns (2019), for instance, transmitted in its devastating sprawl some sense of just how totalising and entrenched the architecture of collusion between organised crime and state institutions is in Mexico. It is not so much the facts or socio-political context Ai is wishing to elucidate in his foray into this single, tragic chapter of Mexico’s contemporary reality, but something more ineffably universal. Ai came to the topic while on a residency at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City in 2016 when he met family members of the missing students through a human rights …
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