‘ 76 Days’ provides glimpse into Wuhan before the spread
NEW YORK—“Papa!” screams a hospital worker, covered in a hazmat suit and PPE, in the opening moments of the documentary “76 Days.”
This is in the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, China— back in January and February, when the city of 11 million went into a 2½-month lockdown and hospitals were overrun. The health worker’s father has just died, and her agony at not being by his side is overwhelming. Her colleagues restrain her as she sobs, moaning, “Papa, you’ll stay forever in my heart.”
“76 Days,” shot in four Wuhan hospitals, captures a local horror before it became a global nightmare. Given the constraints at the time on footage and information from Wuhan, it’s a rare window into the infancy of the pandemic.
The film is directed by the New York-based filmmaker Hao Wu, who worked with two Chinese journalists — one named Wiexi Chen, the other is remaining anonymous— to create of a portrait of the virus epicenter. Some of the images document the fear and confusion of those early days.
Wu’s film consciously avoids politics to concentrate on the humanity inside the hospitals — even if the workers are so obscured by hazmat suits that they’re only identifiable by the names penned in sharpie on their backs.
“I feel like right now there is such a toxic background to a lot of the discussions around the virus,” Wu says. “The virus is an enemy that doesn’t care about your nationality.”
“76 Days,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, is being released Friday by MTV Documentary Films in more than 50 virtual cinemas. In November, it was nominated for best documentary by the IFP Gotham Awards.
It’s among the first in a coming surge of coronavirus documentaries. A handful have already arrived, some— snapshots in an ongoing drama— hurriedly edited even as the scope of the pandemic has continued to expand.
For some, the films are too harsh a reminder of an all-consuming reality. But “76 Days” feels like a vital early draft of history.
Wu’s first instinct had been to create amore straightforwardly journalistic film examining what happened in Wuhan. But Wu— a Chinese native who lives in New York with his partner and two children (he depicted his journey as a gay man in a traditional Chinese family in the 2019 Netflix documentary “All in My Family”) — soon recognized that the difficulty of access and the rapidly changing situation would make such a film either very difficult or potentially stale by the time it was finished.
“I started getting away from wanting to assign blame,” he says.
The journalists, working with press passes, would have typically been closely watched by Communist party minders, but in the chaos, they were given more free rein. Wu leaned into a more observational approach without talking heads, and he urged his collaborators to focus on the people and the details.
One poignant shot shows the ziplocked cellphone of a deceased person as it quietly rings.