A startling picture from inside Wuhan’s beseiged hospitals at the onset of the pandemic
Dirs: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous. US/China. 2020. 93mins.
The immersive documentary 76 Days takes the viewer inside four Wuhan hospitals during the height of China’s COVID-19 epidemic, resulting in a portrait not so much of heroism but of relentless struggle. Working from America, People’s Republic Of Desire director Hao Wu has collaborated with two Chinese reporters embedded inside these intensive care units to show patients young and old grappling with this mysterious, terrifying disease. But what comes across strongest is the sheer uncertainty gripping both the caregivers and the infected — no one has experienced anything like this, and no one knows what could happen next.
Because this is so early in the pandemic, the anxiety over how bad the disease could be — and how contagious — grips nearly every scene.
76 Days will debut at the Toronto Film Festival, and although the film couldn’t be timelier, the question remains of how much more time audiences want to contemplating a pandemic which is still affecting much of the planet. The documentary offers the unvarnished day-to-day reality of hospital life, and certainly future generations may consider 76 Days a historical document of what 2020 felt like.
With no central character, score or even much in the way of narrative through-lines, the film simply plunges into the hectic world of these four Chinese hospitals as they struggle to keep up with the number of coronavirus cases knocking down their door — at one point literally, when harried nurses implore patients to wait their turn to enter the overrun facility. The government locked Wuhan down in late January in hopes of flattening the curve, and 76 Days charts how different medical centres battled the disease over the next few months until the lockdown was lifted in early April.
Wu, alongside co-directors Weixi Chen and Anonymous (who wished to shield his identity), rarely shows doctors and nurses away from their masks, protective face guards and scrubs, a decision that strips them of personality but gives them a uniformity of professional precision. While there has been an admirable attempt by the media to deify frontline caregivers, 76 Days offers a more matter-of-fact depiction of these individuals, who are highly competent but also exhausted and occasionally short-tempered. (Patients who refuse to stay in their room will most certainly be snapped at by hospital officials.)
Chen and Anonymous were allowed access, in part, to help spread awareness of these facilities’ dwindling supplies, sending their footage to Wu (who was quarantined in Atlanta) to edit. So perhaps not surprisingly, 76 Days isn’t concerned about being a definitive snapshot of the COVID era or a sweeping overview of these Wuhan hospitals. Rather, the cameras glide through corridors, breathlessly following doctors as an emergency unfolds, or sitting attentively in rooms as patients struggle with their symptoms. The intimacy of what we see is sometimes striking, especially when a cantankerous older man suffering from dementia feuds with the nurses and yells angrily at his son over the phone, refusing to be placated. Meanwhile, a young couple anxiously wait to see their newborn, and a married middle-aged pair are forced to reside in separate rooms, worried about each other’s condition. Because this is so early in the pandemic, the anxiety over how bad the disease could be — and how contagious — grips nearly every scene.
The filmmakers only occasionally hint at how many days have passed between incidents, conditioning us to the bleary-eyed, limbo-like normalcy of hospitals. Within the caregivers’ tiring routine, though, stray moments of unexpected levity and surreal melancholy emerge. To lift their spirits, the nurses decorate each other’s smocks with magic markers, like kids drawing on the sidewalk in chalk — which only makes it sadder when, later, hospital officials go through a bin of cellphones and IDs left behind by those who died in the facility.
As with many films trying to capture history as it’s happening, 76 Days doesn’t have enough distance from the events chronicled to impart a more nuanced perspective. The repetition of what we see — although indisputably part of the documentary’s objective — can become monotonous. But the small little miracles that occur, including a fraught C-section delivery, are thrown in sharper relief because of the drudgery elsewhere.
76 Days has no desire to say anything profound about our COVID circumstances, or how China combatted the crisis, but the fly-on-the-wall filmmaking does allow pockets of emotion to spring up without warning. These medical professionals have been trained to focus on the immense job in front of them, but every once in a while, they can’t help but break down.