Like a Butterfly

The filmmaker Ali Alvarez set out to make a film about the migration of monarch butterflies—but it turns out the butterflies had a different story to tell.

Alvarez was born in Mexico, and emigrated to Los Angeles with her parents when she was 6 years old. Five short years later, her mother died from cancer. "My childhood memories of [my mother] are mostly of her sick,” says Alvarez in an interview in the Guardian. “She was sick for what felt a long time.”

As a child, Alvarez coped with the loss by throwing herself into horses, working at local stables after school every day until sunset, earning lessons for herself. Then after art school, she threw herself into her work, at a competitive ad agency in London. During a spontaneous trip to return to Mexico for a month with a friend, Alvarez climbed a mountain to witness the migration of the Monarch butterflies, and came across an open space where thousands of them had alighted. She was spellbound. The Guardian quoted her reaction: 

I thought, how come nobody’s ever told me about this? My family said, ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard of them and know it’s wonderful.’ It wasn’t wonderful, it totally, completely floored me. I was in awe.

From there, she knew she had to make a film that captured this magic. But the film she thought she would make was interrupted by circumstance, and then infused with some magic of its own.

She began researching the butterflies, and learned that their annual migration to Mexico coincides with the Day of the Dead, and that many believe the butterflies represent the spirits of ancestors and loved ones who have died, come back to be celebrated on this annual week of remembrance. 

Intrigued, Alvarez unearthed more history and stories of butterflies and their relationship to spirits and the memory of loved ones. And she also discovered stories of the butterflies' appearing in the most unusual places: in the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11, in the cells of executed convicts in China who had converted to Buddhism. Their relationship to death and mourning seemed more than incidental.

According to the Guardian article, Alvarez suffered a major brain injury that delayed her making the film for more than a year. When she finally did make it Mexico—after recovering her memory, her strength, and the ability to ride a horse again, even though that was how she was injured—she felt her mother's presence and that somehow Ali was living full circle. She was comforted by the Day of the Dead and how Mexican families weave the reality of death into life, so grief is not hidden, but rather a part of our daily experience.  

It’s a really amazing tradition—one day of the year that you talk about people who passed away, build an altar, bring up stories. You’re not left alone in your grief and in your memory of a person. Everyone in your neighborhood comes together to tend to the graves and you’d see little kids and dogs and aunties running around the cemetery.

Alvarez doesn't unpack her own personal experience with grief and loss in the movie, but rather tells the stories of others who have been touched by butterflies in relation to their own losses of loved ones. But in making Muertes es Vida (Death is Life), she healed some of her own ache, while also creating a beautiful piece of art that embraces grief, love, and the magic of nature as being ever-connected. And so, art, and her film, take wing, just like the brilliant Monarchs themselves.