THE STORY – Raw and intimate, this documentary captures the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals battling the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan.
THE CAST – The brave medical workers of Wuhan China.
THE TEAM – Hao Wu, Weixi Chen & Anonymous (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
On January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan, China went into lockdown for seventy-six days in the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19. That outbreak, which began in Wuhan, would go on to become a global pandemic that became the defining moment of the year and will continue to define the rest of the decade, if not the century. But it began in Wuhan, and the Chinese government strictly controlled the narrative about what was happening there. In a true act of bravery, two Chinese filmmakers (Weixi Chen and Anonymous) with access to four hospitals across Wuhan began working on a film documenting what was happening in the city of 11 million with New York City-based filmmaker Hao Wu. The result, “76 Days”, is a stunning slice of cinema vérité that shows the incredible resilience of Wuhan’s frontline workers and residents.
The film has a sense of urgency right from the beginning, as shots of the empty city give way to a rush down a hospital hallway. A distraught woman in personal protective gear that makes her look like a worker at a nuclear power plant is begging to say goodbye to her father, who is eventually brought out of his room in a body bag. Her sobs as the hospital staff hold her back out of fear for her own health and safety echo throughout the film. From there, we go to a hospital entrance where the desperation of the people freezing in the winter cold is only matched by the desperation of the hospital workers who know that they only have 45 beds available for the over 50 people waiting to be admitted, and are only capable of handling a few at a time. We may have thought we knew the stakes going into this film, but as with most things related to the COVID pandemic, we didn’t know the half of it.
“76 Days” is full of indelible images of the pain and suffering the pandemic has caused: An elderly woman, unable to speak, gripping her doctor’s hand as if her life depended on it. A box full of bagged cell phones and ID cards, which a nurse explains she is keeping to try to return to the families of those who have died, as one rings, showing it has 31 unread messages. A confused and angry grandpa who keeps trying to leave the hospital, likening it to a prison. A woman who keeps asking for her husband, in a different bed in another wing of the hospital. But there are also heartwarming images of human resilience: A couple of new parents finally able to hold their new baby after two weeks in quarantine after her birth. A recovering woman telling her doctor that she prays for all the hospital staff daily. A nurse microwaving a home-cooked meal for a patient. A hospital staff member making air-filled latex gloves with smiley faces and “get well soon” drawn on in marker.
The story has an impressive structure for a documentary, going from Winter to Spring, death to life, eerily empty streets to a moving scene on April 4th when air raid sirens ring as people in the streets mourn the dead. Part of this is just luck, but part of it is also skill on the part of the filmmakers, who make sure that each storyline parallels another in a meaningful way. While it can be hard to keep track of which hospital staff person is which since we can only barely see their eyes under all the PPE, their stories are just as impactful as those of their patients. A mid-film scene where some medical professionals from elsewhere talk about their motivation to travel to Wuhan to help and a later scene where we watch two staff members strip out of their PPE and share a meal in their hotel room are particular stand-outs.
It was vital for the world to have a document of this pandemic, as clear a generation-defining event as we have seen in years. We are lucky that we got one from the epicenter of the outbreak, one that is able to put us right in the eye of the storm and will allow future generations to learn from what happened there. While “76 Days” lacks the context of what was happening outside Wuhan, especially as regards learning about the virus and the attempts to create a vaccine, the film doesn’t suffer too much for it. In fact, it is that laser focus on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 that is the film’s greatest contribution to history. The value of the footage these filmmakers risked their lives to capture cannot be understated, but the fact that the film made from that footage is so well-crafted and emotionally engaging is something of a miracle. When the story of 2020 is written, “76 Days” will be a key part of it. It is the definition of a not-to-be-missed film.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A vital document of the defining event of at least the next decade, that never loses sight of human emotions in its fly-on-the-wall, cinema vérité-style filmmaking.
THE BAD – There’s no larger context of what is happening to treat the virus or find a cure, and the medical professionals can be difficult to track throughout the story.
THE OSCARS – None