It’s been 6 months since most of the world went into crisis mode amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For some of those countries, the outlook is bleak, with no discernible end in sight. In the case of more proactive societies like China, however, life is slowly returning to normal. But to understand how they got there, we must go back to the pandemic’s early days, as captured in 76 Days, the new documentary from Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and an anonymous co-director.
76 Days zooms in on the hospitals of Wuhan, ground zero of the COVID-19 virus. Home to 11 million people, all eyes were on this city as the Chinese government implemented a lockdown to stop the spread. To some in the Western world, it seemed to be a drastic, almost draconian intervention. But as this engaging film shows, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Indeed, the film’s opening moments recall nightmarish sci-fi dystopias, as pandemonium takes hold of a hospital. Outfitted in protective gear from head to toe, the staff resemble heroes in films like Outbreak as they struggle to maintain order as a proliferation of cases threaten to overrun the system. Meanwhile, the real danger of the disease quickly hits home as a woman hysterically cries out for her dying father.
After this chilling introduction, the tone takes a surprising direction towards a more positive outlook however. The narrative subsequently settles into a “day in the life” story, as the teams of doctors and nurses calmly tend to the sick. In the process, the empathy of the filmmakers and medical personnel alike shines through, as we are introduced to patients often referred to affectionately as grandpas and grandmas.
Much of the footage in 76 Days was captured under threat of censorship by the government. But the filmmaking never feels like a covert “fly-on-the-wall” experience. Instead, there is a real sense of intimacy and active engagement, as the filmmakers capture the small details which show the reassuring environment created by the hospital staff. Even as the strict protocols and ailing patients constantly remind us of the severity of the situation, we get a prevailing sense of hope.
Though the title alludes to Wuhan’s lockdown period, 76 Days admittedly fails to convey the passage of time and the progress of Wuhan’s efforts to combat the disease. But in its depiction of this society’s collective actions within and outside of the medical facilities, it still sends a clear message of the importance of teamwork in any local or national COVID-19 response. For a documentary about one of the most unsettling public health crises of our lifetime, 76 Days is a surprisingly comforting portrait of humanity.