(p. A7) LONDON — 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 the 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.
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The overall impression, especially in the film’s first half-hour, is one of awesome efficiency. Crews quickly bolt prefabricated rooms together, I.C.U. 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.
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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.
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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.
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(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 21, 2020, and has the title “From Ai Weiwei, a Portrait of Wuhan’s Draconian Covid Lockdown.”)