With “Coronation”, Ai Weiwei depicts a China without mercy for the bereaved

In his brand new documentary, the Chinese artist and opponent Ai Weiwei presents the residents of Wuhan under the authority’s strict containment in early 2020 to cope with the spread of Covid-19. As Beijing seeks to introduce its story of exemplary pandemic management, the film shows the regime’s lack of empathy for people who have lost loved ones.

This is one of the highlights of the latest documentary by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. In an apartment in Hubei Province, in full lock, an elderly mother shows her adult son the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) awards for his good and loyal service as a “regular executive.” “Look, look!” She insists when her son, who is obviously not a big fan of the CCP, mocks.

“You kept them all,” he wonders, reading the date on old certificates. “This is torn,” he comments, referring to a document signed in 1970 by Lin Biao, a former Chinese government official. “Lin Biao! You surprise me you tore it up!”, He exclaims. “It’s not me, it’s not me,” his mother answers him in earnest with laughter from her artist son. “So who was it?”, The latter teases. “No idea,” she says to end the case.

Artist Li Wen and her mother during lockdown in Wuhan City, China. © Ai Weiwei Films

When he signed the mother certificate in 1970, Lin Biao was at the peak of his career and held the position of the first vice president of the CCP. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, which left the country bloodless, Mao Zedong’s former right arm was considered a traitor. And four decades later, the development of his name continues to embarrass the old “executive.”

Released on August 20 on video-on-demand platforms, the documentary by Chinese artist and opponent Ai Weiweien continues to be shot between January 23 and April 6, 2020, from the beginning to the end of the Wuhan containment. “Coronation” has five protagonists struggling with government restrictions to deal with the spread of Covid-19.

At a time when Beijing is by all means trying to introduce its story of an exemplary handling of the pandemic that has already killed more than 850,000 people around the world, the film has both scenes that support the official version and embarrassing images for the regime.

No place for grief

“Coronation” opens with a couple driving home on the evening of January 23 after the Chinese New Year holiday, through deserted, snowy streets. The man and woman stop at a gas station where a cold-shaking employee tent without being able to take the temperature. The next moment, the police show up, check the couple’s papers and ask them some questions before they are released. The pictures show an operation that is performed calmly and competently.

While the Beijing regime has been striving to implement an effective management of the new coronavirus crisis, “Coronation” actually shows that the authorities have already at the end of January 2020 succeeded in small exploits in their health organization. medical staff arriving from all over China under the encouragement of reception teams at the airport, robots disinfecting public spaces, fully protected nurses working in hospitals with patients to the beat of the pipe from medical equipment.

The documentary also shows the country hospitals that were built in two weeks to deal with the epidemic. In a typical Ai Weiwei sequence shot, a doctor enters a recently closed hospital and then walks for almost four minutes through a maze of corridors before reaching his consulting room.

The picture gets darker in the second part of the film, when a son alone tries to recover the ashes from his father who died of Covid-19 without the slightest support from the deceased’s former colleagues. In the People’s Republic of China, there is no room for grief or sorrow: nothing must stop the official message celebrating the regime’s effectiveness.

A medical team in Wuhan disinfects, on Ai Weiwei's documentary,
A medical team in Wuhan disinfects Ai Weiwei’s documentary “Coronation”. © Ai Weiwei Films

“It all started 17 years agoyears “

The almost two-hour-long documentary was produced in secret and at a distance. Exile in Europe since 2015, Ai Weiwei gave instructions to amateur video photographers in the Wuhan region and was also able to restore photos already taken. Impossible to know more: to protect his employees in China, the 63-year-old opponent refuses to specify how the shooting took place or how he could access certain sequences.

This is not the first time Ai Weiwei has used video as a form of expression. His multimedia work includes clips and documentaries that take a raw look at social issues.

The theme is also familiar to him. In 2003, while still living in China, Ai Weiwei produced the short film “Eat, Drink and Be Merry” in the middle of the SARS epidemic, a coronavirus that had also appeared in China. “This is probably the only independent documentary about SARS, about how the government denied information that had caused panic among the population. So it all started 17 years ago!”, Ai Weiwei told France24.

The international community then seized on China for its handling of the epidemic, accusing it in particular of warning the World Health Organization (WHO) late and of doing everything in its power to prevent the flow of information.

From the first news of the Covid-19 epidemic, Ai Weiwei kept up to date and had an idea in mind: “From the beginning, I wondered how to make a movie without being in Wuhan,” he said. France 24. “Two reasons prevented me from going there. First I had to leave China in 2015, and I live practically as a political refugee. Then Wuhan was cut off from the world from January 23: no one could enter it. Or go Before that, we had already started thinking about how to make a documentary. “

Despite a similar theme, “Coronation” is very different from “Eat, Drink and Be Merry”. After all, China 2020 is not 2003. Beijing’s global ambitions, regional expansionism, oppression of minorities and autonomous regions have become stronger during Xi Jinping’s presidency. Technology has also enabled Beijing to increase surveillance of its citizens, and the pandemic has provided the perfect motivation to control their actions.

Since the movie “Coronation”, one of the five main characters lives in addition to “under high surveillance of the security forces”, regrets Ai Weiwei. Another – a construction worker who came to Wuhan to build a hospital but was later prevented from returning to his homeland – killed himself.

Meng Liang, a construction worker, checks his phone as he tries to get home from Wuhan, on one of the scenes in "Coronation".
Meng Liang, a construction worker, checks his phone as he tries to get home from Wuhan, on one of the scenes in “Coronation”. © Ai Weiwei Films

No screening at international festivals

Since the late 1990s and his growing fame on the national and international stages, Ai Weiwei has not hesitated to criticize and provoke Beijing with his multimedia works, denying in particular corruption and attacks on individual freedoms.

Drives that still do not arouse much resistance in China. Although a generational difference is noticeable in “Coronation”, Ai Weiwei puts it in perspective. “It’s clear that the elderly support the system more,” says the artist. “But the young do not differ much from the previous generation. You can see how the authoritarian regime has managed to control information and get stuck. The skull in the last 70 years. There are no basis for questioning or any form of criticism. “

For Ai Weiwei, while censorship is strong in China, there is also a form of market-driven self-censorship outside the country’s borders. The artist thus assures that he has not succeeded in presenting his documentary at festivals. “They are very dependent on sales and China is the largest market,” he says. “None of them can deprive themselves of this enticing market. The filmmakers, like festivals hosting their creations, want their films to be released in China. That’s why all these festivals and all these production companies censor themselves.”

“Coronation” is on Vimeo platform(for all countries except the United States) and beyond Alamo on Demand(for the United States).

This article has been adapted from the English original by Henrique Valadares.