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From Ai Weiwei, a portrait of Wuhan's draconian COVID lockdown
Ai Weiwei in New York, Sept. 24, 2017. Christopher Gregory/The New York Times.

by Ian Johnson

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In January, the Chinese city of Wuhan became the first in the world to undergo a lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways this crucial period remains a mystery, with few images escaping the censors’ grasp.

A new film by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei helps fill in some of that missing history. Although now living in Europe, Ai remotely directed dozens of volunteers across China to create “Coronation,” a portrait of Wuhan’s draconian lockdown — and of a country able to mobilize huge resources, if at great human cost.

“The audience has to understand that this is about China,” Ai said in a telephone interview from Portugal. “Yes, it’s about the corona lockdown, but it is trying to reflect what ordinary Chinese people went through.”

Despite early missteps, China has fared better than many other countries in taming the epidemic, with 4,700 deaths compared to more than 172,000 in the United States. The Communist Party goes to great lengths to squelch displays of grief and anger but still retains broad domestic support for its efforts.

The film reflects this broader story through vignettes that follow the events chronologically: It begins Jan. 23 with a couple driving through a snowy night to return home to a suburb of Wuhan and ends April 8 with people burning paper money — a traditional offering to the dead — on a street corner.

In between are scenes and stories remarkable for their rare access into the machinery of the Chinese state. These include up-close images of a hospital being built in a matter of days and an inside look at an intensive-care unit, scenes of medical staff being rewarded with membership in the Communist Party and of workers at a crematory kneading bags of human ashes so they will fit into urns.

The overall impression, especially in the film’s first half-hour, is one of awesome efficiency. Crews quickly bolt prefabricated rooms together; ICU machines beep and purr. The new party members are sworn in with their right fists raised up, and the crematory laborers work so hard that they complain that their hands ache.

As the film progresses, the human costs become more apparent. A volunteer worker whose job is finished is not allowed to leave the quarantine zone, so he sleeps in his car in a parking garage. Mourners wail inconsolably at a crematory, and a man fights to be allowed to collect his father’s urn without government officials present — something authorities do not permit because they are afraid the mourning will turn to anger at the government for having allowed the virus to spin out of control.

Though best known as an artist for his large installations, Ai has often investigated sensitive issues in China on film, including a documentary about a man who murdered six police officers in Shanghai and one about why so many schools collapsed in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

“I had a team that could start quickly,” Ai said of making “Coronation.” “They didn’t have to ask what I wanted.”

Besides volunteers, and paid crews, Ai said he was aided by his partner, Wang Fen, who has siblings living in Wuhan. “She had a deeply emotional involvement,” he said.

The hardest footage to shoot was inside the ICU, Ai said, but he could not divulge how it was filmed. He said much of it was done with hand-held video cameras about the size of a smartphone that are able to stabilize images. It helped, he said, that many people were wearing masks: that made them feel less nervous about getting in trouble for speaking on camera.

Ai said he amassed nearly 500 hours of footage that he and his team cut down to make the roughly two-hour documentary.

The film is available in the United States on Alamo on Demand and in other parts of the world on Vimeo on Demand. Ai said he had hoped to show it first at a film festival, but festivals in New York, Toronto and Venice, after first expressing interest, turned him down. He said that Amazon and Netflix also rejected the movie.

He says his impression is that this was because many of these festivals and companies want to do business in China and so avoid topics that might anger Beijing, something other Chinese directors say is common.

The Venice International Film Festival declined to comment, while the Toronto Independent Film Festival and Amazon did not return calls or emails. Others denied that politics played a role. A spokeswoman for Netflix said it was working on its own documentary about the virus, while a press officer for the New York Film Festival said in an email that “we want to emphasize that political pressures do not and have never played a role in the festival’s curatorial selection.”

Ai said the film points to how China’s technocratic successes present a formidable challenge to open societies. Its brand of state capitalism has delivered decades of fast economic growth and has helped raise tens of millions out of absolute poverty.

“But it’s not just how efficiently you make decisions but what you deliver to human society,” Ai said. “China has no answers there.”

Rather than providing the world with a model for how to govern, China’s response to the virus shows an increasingly nervous, fragile country, he said. In the scenes where mourners collect ashes, for example, Ai said viewers should note that all the people in white suits and full personal protective gear lurking in the background are members of state organizations trying to make sure that a lid is kept on the grief.

“China has this very clear view that once you lose control then chaos follows,” Ai said. “It has not roots to stabilize itself because it has no nongovernmental organizations, just the government.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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