Richmond Times-Dispatch

‘ 76 Days’ provides glimpse into Wuhan before the spread

- BY JAKE COYLE

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.

 ?? MTV DOCUMENTAR­Y FILMS ?? An elderly woman with COVID-19 is escorted by two nurses after being admitted to a hospital in Wuhan, China, in a scene fromthe documentar­y “76 Days.”
MTV DOCUMENTAR­Y FILMS An elderly woman with COVID-19 is escorted by two nurses after being admitted to a hospital in Wuhan, China, in a scene fromthe documentar­y “76 Days.”

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