“Why are you going back to Wuhan?”
“I am going back to fight.”
Directed by Ai Weiwei
Coronation (2020) explores the response to the COVID-19 pandemic through several residents of Wuhan. It takes us through the daily lives in the midst of lockdown of a couple coming back home to Wuhan after Chinese New Year, an emergency hospital construction worker, a delivery worker delivering packages to people locked inside their apartment block, a doctor in one of the hospitals, a mother and son trapped inside their house, and a young man and woman who have lost fathers.
For many, particularly those living in Western countries, Wuhan and Hubei province were places that had never even been heard of until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The spectacular drone footage introduces the city, the many high rises, the train station, the bridges and the lights and screens on all the buildings. It reminds us of busy and bright Tokyo or Times Square, but there is no traffic and no people, and the feeling of an apocalypse settles uncomfortably. The drone footage that does show that life still continues captures the huge effort of building the 16 temporary hospitals in a matter of days in response to the pandemic.
Coronation humanises the city by allowing us to walk the streets and hospitals with its residents. It allows us to enter the hospitals which we cannot see into even in our home countries. We are exposed to the painstaking efforts the doctors and nurses are going to in order to stop the spread of the virus. We watch as they spend minutes washing their hands thoroughly, slowly and carefully taking on and off their personal protective equipment. Weiwei refuses to explain the footage, leaving the medical jargon and equipment to enforce the many fears still hanging over those now facing the pandemic. The range of symptoms are explored comparing those in ICU fighting for their lives to those sitting around, wondering why they cannot go home.
The struggles of the lockdown are exposed as we watch residents get their food and other deliveries pushed under a locked gate. A construction worker who built the hospitals is stuck in Wuhan until the pandemic is over and has been living in his car as there is nowhere else to go. He struggles to find a public bathroom as they are being closed to due to the pandemic. Coronation asks us to reflect on our lockdowns, who are we not considering, who is being left behind?
Stories from those that trust the government and those that don’t, contradict themselves, but reflect everything we are seeing in our countries, no matter the stance the government is taking. The stories of those having to die alone have lost their shock value, as they are becoming common as the pandemic takes over the world, which is most concerning of all.
Coronation is voyeuristic, leaving us constantly uncomfortable as it fulfils our curiosity of how Wuhan dealt with COVID-19. It exposes what may come if the pandemic continues to get worse in our own countries with large trucks and machines used to spray disinfectant through deserted streets, and people lined up to collect the ashes of their loved ones. We watch as a bag of ashes is punched and squashed so that it will fit into an urn, and we are left wondering if our loved ones will be treated like that.
Coronation is the first documentary of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is confronting, distressing and daringly questions the response to the pandemic, but also humanises Wuhan – “ground zero” – a place that rarely made it on our radar before this pandemic changed the world. It shows images of the pandemic many of us try to avoid and asks us to really see what is happening, not just to ourselves and our loved ones, but to those dealt a worse hand in our own countries and abroad. I think it is really important viewing for our time, however I do recommend great consideration before commencing.
Given the distressing time, and that many countries are still in the midst of the pandemic, I think it is important to note that this documentary contains distressing footage of people in hospitals taking their final, struggling breaths. Steps have been taken to distance the viewer from the footage, however it must still be watched with discretion.
Coronation is avaliable on Vimeo via https://www.aiweiwei.com/coronation