The start of 76 Days, the latest from documentary filmmaker Hao Wu along with Weixi Chen and their anonymous co-director, is something out of a horror movie. First it’s the haunting sobs of a medical worker, obscured completely by a hazmat suit, as she rushes through a hospital while her father’s body is wheeled out in a body bag, determined to see him one last time. Secondly, it’s the push and pull between medical staff and patients trying to elbow their way into the hospital, as the staff pleads with them to stay patient and allow things to progress in an orderly fashion – the panic in their voices, on both sides of the door, is palpable. This is the scene in Wuhan, ground zero of the devastating, on-going, COVID 19 pandemic. Wu, Chen and the anonymous filmmaker have captured invaluable footage which makes the past nine months feel like a lifetime as they documented the 76 day city wide lockdown in Wuhan which started on January 23rd, 2020.
Due to the glib manner in which the news reports on it and the abysmal handling of it in the U.S, people seem to blur the timeline of the COVID 19 pandemic crisis. Or, perhaps, it’s just shined a light on the inherent individualism at the core of American culture, where people are more concerned about being told to wear a mask in a grocery store, waiting in line to get into an outlet mall or not being able to get their Sunday brunch in a shoulder-to-shoulder restaurant. Whatever it is, it makes 76 Days a necessary and visceral learning moment for those who managed to forget the horrors that this pandemic has wrought. That the documentary gleans such powerful moments by fly-on-the-wall methods of capturing the hospital staff taking an all hands on deck, community first approach makes its impact all the greater.
The approach to the filmmaking is very technical and, on surface level, clinical, if only due to the subject matter. Everyone working at the hospital is in hazmat suits – the only differentiation being drawings added to their backs with cherry blossoms or little slogans to offer hope to the hospital’s residents – so we aren’t seeing the typical human to human, face to uncovered face interaction we might get in any other documentary. It’s all the more a testament to the staff – the true stars here – who give the film its humanity through actions, words of affirmation and a diligent need to preserve through the greatest challenge of their careers.
The journalist approach by the filmmakers is appreciated as well due to how easy, in light of such a horrific and worldwide event, they could have reached for the most manipulative, heart wrenching moments. Instead, we see the moments big, small, and all that falls in between. From a mother who has been separated from her newborn child or an old fisherman who persistently wanders out of his room only for a friendly and exhausted staff member to see him and walk him back, there’s varying levels of distress and, in moments, hope, to be found. We’ve seen the reports – we’ve read the stories and witnessed the pleadings from medical personnel regarding overflowing hospitals and limited gear – we’ve heard about the trauma to the point of numbness. 76 Days puts faces to what otherwise had been only second hand stories or experienced by the ones there and it’s riveting in its simplicity and still so unfathomably tragic that to think that it was only the start of the year is surreal. The matter of factness here, the integrity of the filmmakers, and the resilience of the staff and patients is what makes 76 Days such a necessary viewing – there’s no room for extra tricks. The film works through so many emotions with a steady hand that while it doesn’t offer up any new bit of information, it works as one of the few primary sources of the event.
The genre elements with which the film opens dissipate shortly after the initial, traumatizing beginning gives way to exhaustion and deeply felt mourning. The militant management in keeping the staff safe leads itself into a moment when, finally, a nurse we’ve followed all along finally sheds her hazmat suit and gloves to wash up, with tired lines and the marks of the goggles that have etched their way into her skin around her eyes telling their own stories. Similarly affecting is a passing shot where we see another staff member passed out on a bench specifically placed in the hospital for that purpose. There are the shots of a nurse who keeps small possessions of the deceased at her desk, hopeful that a family member will retrieve them, so that something like a phone or bracelet could offer any amount of relief to them. It’s those same phones, shown ringing helplessly, that levels us and leaves holes in our guts. Then, there’s the last closing moments as a city weeps, mourns and prays together over what they’ve endured, and the reality of the year comes crashing down again. 76 Days might not be offering us anything new regarding COVID 19, but it will remain a vital source of history.