Ai Weiwei Releases First Major Coronavirus Doc with ‘CoroNation’

By Pat Mullen

The ever-prolific Ai Weiwei becomes the first filmmaker to release a feature-length documentary about the COVID-19 pandemic. Ai’s new film CoroNation debuts on Vimeo on Demand today and leads a long list of coronavirus documentaries that aim to illuminate the global pandemic that gripped the world in 2020. (There have been some early shorts and rapid-turnaround broadcast docs.) CoroNation looks specifically at China’s role in the matter as the outbreak began in Wuhan and spread while the government endeavoured to contain both the virus and the flow of information about it.

According to the New York Times, Ai assembled over 500 hours of footage depicting the outbreak in China between late January and early April 2020. The footage includes covert material shot in the I.C.U. used to contain and research the virus, with much footage shot by family members of Ai’s partner and collaborator Wang Fen, who has family in Wuhan. The doc reportedly juxtaposes the efficiency of China’s response to the coronavirus, but also the dramatic human toll that resulted from the government’s reluctance to acknowledge the outbreak to the public. Ai directed the film remotely from his home in Berlin and, like many teams working under lockdown, led post-production virtually.

“It’s not just how efficiently you make decisions but what you deliver to human society,” Ai told the Times. “China has no answers there.”

In an interview with ArtNet, he added, “It is very possible that the Chinese authorities, having experience with SARS, simply wished it would go away on its own…They hesitated to openly and clearly provide information about the disease. Early on, they said it was not transmittable from human-to-human in an attempt to prevent people from panicking. They also froze disclosure of the accurate number of infected and dead.”

The report in the New York Times notes that despite Ai’s popularity as an artist as a filmmaker, all the major fall film festivals—TIFF, Venice, and New York—rejected CoroNation for their events, as did the major streaming sites. TIFF has the COVID-19 documentary 76 Days among its selections and perhaps didn’t feel the need for two coronavirus films within a line-up of 50 titles. Ai is self-distributing the film on Vimeo worldwide with only Alamo Drafthouse releasing CoroNation through its on-demand service in the USA.

However, Ai’s struggle to get major partners on board for the project raises another question: is there an appetite for coronavirus documentaries so soon? Whether audiences want to know more about the headline that’s dominated news cycles for months, or prefer to use movies to escape COVID-19 fatigue, remains to be seen. At least, for now, one doesn’t need to mask up in order to watch it.

Coronation from Ai Weiwei Films on Vimeo.