First, count with me to 43. 

It’s a simple tribute and protest practiced by the families of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College who were disappeared after police attacked their bus on the night of Sept 26, 2014, in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. 

The official story, the so-called “historic truth” widely publicized by the Mexican government, confirmed the involvement of local police, then claimed that the students were handed over to members of a drug cartel, who then allegedly murdered them and burned the bodies in a mass grave. A subsequent independent investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came to conclusions that contradicted the official story, suggesting complicity in the attack and disappearances by the federal police, the army, and the government itself. But then that investigation was shut down by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. The disappeared students, and three others who were killed in the initial assault, had been on their way to Mexico City for the annual commemoration of another massacre perpetrated by a previous administration, the murders of unknown numbers of protestors at Tlaltelolco in 1968.

Renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s epic documentary Vivos does not delve into every detail of the Ayotzinapa disappearances and its investigation. Rather, it begins by offering several families—mostly poor, indigenous farmers of coffee, sugarcane, and corn—the opportunity to tell stories about their sons’ youth and ambitions. To become a teacher in these communities, to become fluent in Spanish, is a respected goal, an act of upward mobility in an environment that otherwise offers little hope of economic or social improvement. The families remember the missing as hard workers, contributors to the welfare of the household, loving fathers, young men who desired to repay their parents’ struggles on their behalf through their own professional independence and success. 

The school at Ayotzinapa is also known as a particular hotbed of resistance to state power. Training as a rural teacher there, to empower youth in frequently disenfranchised communities, is not just choosing a professional path. It’s an ideological one as well. The self-described peasant families of the missing believe this is one of several reasons they have yet to receive the full story about the 2014 attack and the whereabouts of their sons. Whereabouts because, without physical evidence, many don’t believe the missing are dead. We may see this as false hope, but really its indicative of the complete loss of trust in the government in regions like rural Guerrero and elsewhere in Mexico, where the history of oppression, corruption, extrajudicial killings, and neglect of basic services runs long and deep. 

Strangely, there is a substantial amount of joy in Vivos (Spanish for alive), frequently emanating from the play of parents with young children and the curious behavior of animals. The color and light of the family homes in Guerrero’s valleys are the material of postcards and travel magazines. Everything and everyone is, of course, expertly photographed. But the rich aestheticization of this world doesn’t trouble us as trivializing, for looking in the wrong way. Rather, the everyday beauties artfully framed by the cinematography heighten the tension between the pride and resilience of the communities and the criminality and horror they endure, that are imposed upon them by the state and its terroristic accomplices. Beauty and joy, hope, too, are undeniable elements in these lives, simple on their surface, but complex in their psychological and historical suffering. We must delight in the pleasure Ai gives us, even as we boil in response to the impunity with which a murderous institutional corruption sustains and deepens the students’ families’ anguish. As much as Vivos is the narrative of a horrible crime and its aftermath, it is also, equally, maybe more so, an exquisitely detailed and sympathetic record of a rural culture whose resilience and exemplary resistance is rooted in generosity, civic and familial bonds, and a deep spiritual approach to the currents of life and death.

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