The first word heard in 76 Days is an anguished cry — “Papa!” — as a group of hazmat-suited medical workers race through the corridors of a hospital and the film plunges straight into the turmoil and agony of the coronavirus. The grief-stricken daughter is one of those workers, arriving at her father’s room too late to bid him goodbye. Her colleagues restrain her, console her, try to calm her; they’ll need her to stay strong for the afternoon shift.
That this aching scene unfolds without a single face fully visible makes it all the more haunting. In almost every frame of 76 Days, a remarkable front-line report that’s the work of three directors, most of the figures we see are covered head to toe in personal protective equipment. The vérité footage was shot, heroically, in four hospitals in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus was first identified.
U.S.-based director Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire), who also serves as screenwriter-editor, worked remotely with two reporters he’s never met in person, Weixi Chen and a journalist-filmmaker who has chosen to go unnamed. There’s nothing overtly political or accusatory about the footage in 76 Days; it’s not a policy-focused exposé or timeline. But as much as the hospital staffs might have welcomed witnesses to the quick-moving emergency, the helmers’ presence in the facilities wasn’t government-sanctioned.
Donning protective gear, Chen and Anonymous began their reporting in February, soon after the Jan. 23 lockdown went into effect in Wuhan, a major metropolis in eastern China. Wu connected with them while researching a project for a U.S. network, one that the TV outfit would scrap when COVID-19 grew beyond a mere “China story” to a global pandemic. He pressed on, and the resulting film is a human story, thrusting viewers smack in the middle of pandemonium as well as scenes of commiseration and selflessness.
An emotional-wringer group portrait, it isn’t the first documentary to follow physicians facing down crises (two notable examples are Code Black and Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders). But here there’s no time out for talking-head interviews or long-view commentary; 76 Days is a work of true direct cinema, and its specifics make it, to use an overused word du jour, unprecedented: Its dispatches were captured within a whirl of emotional uncertainty and nonstop action at the epicenter of an escalating outbreak — the same outbreak affecting the life of anyone viewing this film for its Toronto bow or in the months to come.
The filmmakers have requested that none of the hospitals or personnel be identified in reviews “to avoid any potential government interference with the film.” For audiences who can’t read Chinese characters, the doc offers few such details. One hospital is clearly identified late in the proceedings, and two nurses are ID’d with intertitles: a female nurse who makes it her mission to return the few items left by the deceased (phones, ID cards, the occasional bracelet) to their families, and a male nurse with a particularly sympathetic bedside manner. “Your family is not here,” he tells an elderly woman clutching his hand, “so we are your family now.”
The onscreen text that introduces him is a bit confusing at first because it says “Shanghai” in addition to his name; viewers might wonder if there’s been a switch of location. The nurse is from Shanghai, one of many medical workers from other parts of China to travel to Wuhan in its hour of need. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” another nurse says, underscoring an uncommon sense of purpose. “It’s our luck to encounter it.”
In addition to the two ID’d nurses, whose work the film returns to at various, increasingly affecting points, there are a couple of patient narratives that provide character through-lines: new parents whose easygoing infant girl, nicknamed Little Penguin, is being monitored for the virus, and an elderly man, referred to as Grandpa, who has dementia. As people almost always hidden behind masks, none of these are characters in the conventional sense of cinematic storytelling. That’s especially so for the medical workers, who are encumbered by layers of gear and must write their names in marker on the back of their suits (sometimes adding drawings of flowers or the names of favorite dishes: “Clay Pot Chicken, I miss you”).
Through Grandpa’s story, the most developed in the film, the staff’s frustration and affection are vividly expressed. They must repeatedly admonish him for not wearing his mask properly, as well as for wandering the halls, determined to find an exit. He wavers between stubborn outrage and doleful tears, insisting that he isn’t sick until he insists that he’s ready to die.
The camerawork and editing are extraordinary in their immediacy and their sensitivity to chaos, exhaustion and resilience — often all at once. A sequence early in the film is straight out of a horror movie: Hospital staff rush to a door whose handle jiggles ominously, on the other side a vestibule filled with sick people impatient to be admitted. Emotions flare on both sides as the nurses insist on order amid the frenzy. Whole families arrive sick. Machinery beeps and whirs, cries go up for intubation equipment, and the hallway’s digital clock marks the time, an abstraction in an endless cycle of urgency. A sign warns, “Entering Contamination Zone,” and there are discreet glances at severely ill patients in the ICU. There’s tenderness too, and awe: In a moment that’s all the more charged for the remove at which it’s filmed, a father sits alone in a hallway, gazing into the face of the newborn in his arms.
The medical workers’ camaraderie is as moving as the gratitude of their patients. An old man tells the nurse from Shanghai, “You all are charging forward, braving the enemy’s fire,” and the same can be said of the two DP-helmers who entered the fray to record it.
As to the wider picture in Wuhan, Wu keeps it to a minimum, with a few piercing glances: An ambulance makes its solitary way across a nighttime bridge; a volunteer arrives at a patient’s home to drive her to the hospital. Whatever happened at the government level, a strong communal sense pervades 76 Days. In the city streets, a PA announcement from district officials stresses the need for unity and cooperation in eradicating the infection. But just as important, and instructive, is the collective acknowledgment of loss: In early April, a few days before the lockdown is lifted, air raid sirens shatter the quiet with a symbolic howl as a city, preparing to return to a more familiar way of living, mourns its dead.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production company: 76 Days LLC in association with XTR Film Society
Directors: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous
Screenwriter-editor: Hao Wu
Producers: Hao We, Jean Tsien
Executive producers: Bryn Mooser, Roberto Grande, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Naja Pham Lockwood
Directors of photography: Anonymous, Weixi Chen
North American sales: CAA Media Finance
International sales: Dogwoof