Geneva shows the film China wants no one to see

Persona non grata in his native China, Ai Weiwei now lives in Portugal and doesn't see a bright future for humanity. © Camera Press

Ai Weiwei’s film Coronation is being shown at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva this weekend. This is a first for the documentary, which delves into the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

This content was published on March 12, 2021
Jamil Chade

“The world will probably never know what really happened in Wuhan just over a year ago,” says the Chinese artist, now living in Portugal.

Coronation is a rare window into China's health crisis: the initial Chinese cover-up, the chaos from an unprepared health system and the more than three-month lockdown of Wuhan, cut off from the world and left to fend for itself. 

The film has never been shown publicly, nor streamed on major platforms. This, according to Ai, is due to Chinese political pressure on the international film industry.

The Geneva festival didn't bow to Chinese pressure. This weekend the film is being shown at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human RightsExternal link. In an interview with SWI, Ai says he has no illusions: the democratic wave of the past 40 years is coming to an end and censorship will be the rule in the post-pandemic world. 

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SWI You are not welcome in China. How did you manage to film in Wuhan?

A.W.: I filmed the first pandemic, in 2003, when SARS appeared in China, so it is not the first time I deal with this topic. I have been doing investigative films in China for quite a long time, which have already got me in trouble. I know how to film and what to film. We had colleagues and artists in lockdown in Wuhan. We knew it would be a dramatically sad story. But I never predicted it would be a global pandemic and that we would still be under the same situation today, with thousands of people dying every day, and still no signs that the pandemic will disappear.

I contacted the people that I know and trust. I gave them directions each day after the images were sent to me. It was incredibly difficult because of the lockdown situation. People couldn't move. But I had people in six hospitals and also in the temporary wartime barracks which were set up to deal with the patients.

SWI What did you want to show?

A.W.:We tried to show different viewpoints. Not only of the hospitals, but also of human life, of abandoned and forgotten people.  The big majority of the people [in China] are voiceless. Once you don't have a voice, you don't count. Or you are just a number. Emotions and values are no longer relevant.

SWI Your film will show in the Film Festival in Geneva, this weekend. But global platforms did not broadcast the film. What does that reveal about China's influence?

A.W.: I'm very proud of what we have done. This is probably the most important film about the pandemic and about China. What I wanted to show is how China performs in the political world. And how the world understands China.

Ironically, the first lesson I got was not from China, but from the West. All the major film festivals in the world where we tried to showcase the film, Toronto, New York and major online distributors like Netflix and Amazon, all loved the film at first. But in the end, the response we got was: “we can't accept your film”.

SWI How did you react?

A.W.: I understand the situation. The film industry is now dominated by China. Just last month China overtook the US as the biggest film market in the world. As for festivals, they are either self-censoring or under pressure from China. They can only present films that have a "Dragon Seal", issued by the Chinese Communist Party propaganda department.  

To get this seal is virtually impossible. Many of my colleagues in China have never been able to get it, despite trying for years.

So, even if I don't criticize China, they [film festivals and platforms] cannot be associated with my name. That would affect their commercial potential in China, where the state is the sole buyer.

But even the entertainment and cinema industry in the West refused to project my film in Berlin. I understand that they have a solid presence in China and they simply cannot do that. They can't afford to lose their business. It's not something right or wrong. The West gave up its freedoms for the needs of capital and profit.

A still from Ai Weiwei's film 'Coronation' screenshot/

SWI What you are saying is that the issue of freedom of expression faces challenges not only in China but also in the West. How do you think the world will emerge from the pandemic on this issue?

A.W.: When we talk about freedom of expression, we all know that we will live in much worse conditions than previously. Everywhere. In China, people are under intense control and surveillance, like in a science fiction movie, except that it is very real.

But in the West, we have just heard how big companies have been leaking information about users to Chinese companies. Everything in China is under government control. So the authorities can control the information on individuals in the West, too.

SWI : Do you think this is permanent?

That is the new reality. Because of globalization, big corporations are deeply involved with China and there is not a border, ideology or any kind of argument. Just profits. The Chinese side is China's strategically winning.

The wave of 30 or 40 years of democratization is coming to an end. If you look at what's happening in US or in Brazil and so many other states, there is a huge backlash with regard to democracy and the liberal state. Many of these countries are in domestic crises, opening a great advantage to authoritarian states.

Leaders like Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin or the Chinese Xi Jinping are strongmen who skillfully managed to get what they want. I think they will last for a long time yet and it seems there is no way to stop them.

Ai Weiwei's work has always related to pressing political and social issues, such as the plight of refugees. Law of the Journey (2017) was originally commissioned and displayed by the National Museum of Prague (Czech Republic) and brought to a warehouse on Cockatoo Island, Australia, as part of the Sydney Biennale exhibition (pictured). Zan Wimberley

SWI How do you evaluate the West's reaction to this situation?

A.W.: The West has no clear values. When a journalist for the Washington Post is killed in an embassy, the American government pretends that this is nothing. If the West can accept that, it has no moral position to argue. Julian Assange is still in prison. He only provided a platform to reveal some state secrets. But if things like this are allowed to happen, the so-called freedom of speech is a joke. You are only allowed to speak something that they will accept. They will never let you speak something really crucial or question the establishment.

SWI In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent a mission to Wuhan. Do you think that one day we will really know what happened a year ago with the pandemic?

A.W.: No, I don't think so. The communist regime is very powerful and strong and keeping this secret in on top of their agenda. The WHO made a very superficial visit. They (WHO) also should bear the same responsibility, since at the very beginning of the crisis, they indicated that the disease was not transmissible between humans.

SWI What do you think will happen on the planet in the post-pandemic period?

A.W.: We are living a very fragile moment. I don't think the pandemic will alarm people enough for them to devise a clear strategy to deal with what human society is facing in the future. In many ways, we are dealing with realities that are unprecedented for human society. Technology, powerful states like China and the West's incapability to deal with that authoritarian state, plus the huge climate problems. All of this puts our human future in question.

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