Translated from Portuguese by Kathryn Bishop Sanchez
Coronation was released yesterday for worldwide streaming as the first feature-length documentary on COVID-19. It came from the epicenter of the pandemic, the Chinese city of Wuhan. There, 15 cameramen (some volunteer and others remunerated) filmed different aspects of the crisis between January 23 and April 8. From his exile in Germany, the visual artist and director Ai Weiwei received almost 500 hours of material and quickly completed the final edit of 113 minutes.
The film carries the critical mark of Weiwei who has already challenged the Chinese status quo in various art forms, including cinema. Among others, he has made documentaries about the assassination of six policemen in Shanghai and the destruction of schools in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Coronation offers a panel of individual cases and collective procedures that mirror both sides of an extremely controlled technocratic society.
The authorities in Wuhan committed the capital sin of trying to minimize the pandemic at its origin. When they realized their mistake, they enforced extraordinary measures to contain the virus. In the end (according to official reports at least), China had around 4,600 deaths, in comparison to 175,000 in the USA and 113,000 in Brazil to date. Restrictions to individual liberties were a steep price to pay for the successful containment of the spread of the virus. This is the dilemma that all countries have to confront in one way or another. In China, however, the scale of everything seems immeasurable.
Coronation did not require any scenic or technological effects to appear as science fiction. Drones overflying the deserted city or the morbid cortege of ambulances, a doctor’s long walk through labyrinthine corridors of an emergency ward, healthcare professionals under layers of PPE, robots disinfecting streets — all appear as scenes of dystopia.
Dramatic vignettes follow one after the other, filmed intimately. A couple returns to Wuhan through several sanitary checkpoints and experience difficulty trying to fill the tank of their car in the severe winter weather. A volunteer working on the construction of a make-shift hospital has to fight with bureaucracy to move between Wuhan and his hometown. A man has to insist to say farewell to his father’s ashes without the unwanted company of union representatives. A delivery man struggles to get packages to their destination. People complain about the confinement of makeshift hospitals or against the inertia of the authorities. At a cemetery, a funeral home employee compresses ashes to fit in a small urn before the family buries them.
Clandestine footage in hospitals capture the life-saving efforts pushed to the limits and the meticulous care of medical staff to escape contamination. Fear and pain also seem under the control of the state, a control that is exerted throughout all the population. At one point, we overhear a child talking on the phone who seems obsessed with disinfection.
In the meantime, the ideological machine aims to maintain the bar relatively high. A group of doctors swear their fidelity to the Communist Party and a group of colleagues celebrate the final victory of Wuhan against the virus. One sequence in particular highlights the conflicts between revolutionary China and the younger generations that value individual liberties. A son converses with his mother, a woman loyal to Mao Tsé-Tung who believes the state must remain constant to avoid following into disarray. The man shows her scenes of police street violence and criticizes the monitoring of cellphones to control people’s location and possible third-party contamination. The mother appears not to want to hear or believe the ideal of her country is at stake.
Wuhan entered history as a laboratory of important decisions that the world would have to take from hereon after. What could have been just another Jia Zhang-ke film on China in transformation has found in Ai Weiwei a tone of urgency. Coronation proves how much of Humanity is surreal and macabre at the present moment.
Coronation is available worldwide with English subtitles on Vimeo on demand.
According to Ai Weiwei, the film was turned down by the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals, as well as Netflix and Amazon.