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Ai Weiwei Takes On 43 Missing Mexicans In 'Vivos' Documentary


Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned artist whose works are in the world's leading museums. His latest project took him to rural southwestern Mexico, where five buses full of students were attacked in 2014. Three of the students were murdered. Forty-three were never found. The new documentary "Vivos" introduces us to the families whose children were disappeared and the official investigation that did not tell the full story of what happened. The film's director and producer, Ai Weiwei, joins us now from the Sundance Film Festival.


AI WEIWEI: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: What attracted you to this story?

WEIWEI: Well, University of Mexico wanted me to do an art exhibition, so I was thinking as, how could I have a project which can make me understand more about Mexico culture and politics? That is why I paid attention to this disappearance of those 43 students.

SHAPIRO: You spent a lot of time with the families of the disappeared students, and it's clear that many of them are still in deep grief, even years after this incident. Can you tell us the story of one of those family members who sticks in your brain?

WEIWEI: Well, there's one student who was shot and now is still in the unconscious condition.

SHAPIRO: He was severely injured but he survived.

WEIWEI: Yeah. Yeah, and his whole family keep taking care - daily care for someone who lost conscious but still alive.

SHAPIRO: They built a whole house for him with a room for the nurses and everything.

WEIWEI: Yes. Before they built the whole house, as it took years, they have to go to the hospital, you know, by bus. And it's very far away. They have really keep fighting for years, which is almost impossible to think about it.

SHAPIRO: You document a protest movement that has emerged from this incident, and there is a scene of people holding signs and shouting, they took them alive, and alive we want them back.



UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in Spanish).


SHAPIRO: Do you think this movement is going to have a long-term impact on Mexican society?

WEIWEI: This incident is very unique in Mexico. In most cases, the disappearance - you know, in Mexico, it's very common. Thousands of people disappear. But this single case may be because their body never been discovered and maybe because there's a clear cover-up. Those group of parents are really united, and they really demand a clear answer.

SHAPIRO: Do you think they will ever get it?

WEIWEI: I don't really know. The new government - the new president is a liberal and promised to restart a new investigation. But the process is very slow.

SHAPIRO: You have worked in so many different formats in your career. This is a traditional two-hour feature film. You could just as easily have made a conceptual piece or another less literal interpretation of the story. Tell us about why you approached it from a journalistic perspective.

WEIWEI: (Laughter) That's a good question. I have been doing this journalistic perspective for quite a long time. In China, I did the investigation of 5,335 students who disappeared during a 2008 earthquake.

SHAPIRO: This was the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province.

WEIWEI: Yes, the earthquake happened in 2008 in Sichuan. So that - I'm a self-trained investigator and also journalist.


WEIWEI: And I think this is very important to get the full story and to get every side of the people who were involved to tell what really happened to their life.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask about your role as an artist and filmmaker. You are in high demand all over the world. How does it feel to go from the most rarified circles to rural Mexico? It must be a real split screen for you personally in your experience.

WEIWEI: Yes. But often, I try to be more objective on those issues. I mean, we can clearly see Mexico people is the most caring and nice people. Simply, they just needed to survive.

SHAPIRO: The story does not have a satisfying ending. And so for you as a filmmaker, as somebody who invested so much time and energy in telling this story, is it going to be difficult to leave it behind and move on to other projects?

WEIWEI: For me, it's not because I think the story needs to be told. The people who are suffering need to be introduced. People should be understanding as, you know, any sister or mom needs compassion. But look at today's world. In so many shows, you can never really see a good ending. Look at what happens in Hong Kong today. The young students are really fighting, risk their life. But you don't see there will be a clear, so-called happy ending or result. And in many, many other ways, they're the same. And I think it's a time of a struggle. And after all, this is a society which should be defined by the public and by people who are involved in those situations.

SHAPIRO: Ai Weiwei is the director of the new documentary "Vivos" about the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico.

Thank you for talking with us about it.

WEIWEI: Thank you for the interview. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.