76 Days — which follows exhausted doctors and nurses in Wuhan, China struggling to cope as the deadly global outbreak of the new coronavirus first originated — will be eagerly anticipated at the Toronto Film Festival as it’s the first documentary from ground zero of the COVID-19 crisis to reach movie theaters.
The irony is the ongoing global pandemic will keep New York City-based co-director Hao Wu from physically attending the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 14 for his documentary about Wuhan’s 76 day COVID-19 lockdown from late January to early April.
“We were ecstatic when we heard Toronto picked our film, but now we’re disappointed that we won’t be able to go in person,” Wu tells The Hollywood Reporter.
And the novel coronavirus, as it eventually spread from Wuhan to New York City, also kept Wu from joining his co-directors — video reporter Weixi Chen and another local reporter who wished to remain anonymous to protect his identity — as they embedded themselves in four overwhelmed Wuhan hospitals during that city’s lockdown.
“I decided to stay in New York and edit the film,” Wu recounts. For his co-directors, shooting footage for 76 Days during Wuhan’s lockdown was both emotionally draining and physically dangerous.
The documentary features Wuhan doctors and nurses unrecognizable to their patients and the film’s audience as they wear personal protection equipment from head-to-toe, including hazmat suits, gloves, face masks and visors.
Wu’s co-directors were similarly covered in disposable gowns, aprons and masks to avoid infection as they followed Wuhan medical personnel with their cameras. “My unnamed co-director was telling me he may die because he thought he had COVID-19. He got tested and that showed negative, but we still don’t know whether the test was valid,” Wu says.
With medical personnel covered in personal protective equipment (PPE) and their eyes only seen behind foggy goggles, Wu knew he couldn’t make a character-driven film like his earlier People’s Republic of Desire, about fans of China’s online live-streaming sites, and Netflix’s All in the Family, which features intimate footage of Wu’s parents and sister as they learn he has come out as gay to his family.
“I knew from the beginning of 76 Days it would difficult for the audience to track characters,” Wu remembers. So the documentary becomes less about identifying main and secondary characters as doctors and nurses race between beds to save lives, and more about using emotional-driven stories to drive the narrative. That includes the opening scene where a young woman begs to say goodbye to her father as his fresh corpse in a body bag is wheeled out of an intensive care unit; a grandfather with dementia who keeps leaving his hospital bed to go home; a couple anxious to meet their newborn baby and a nurse forever wanting to return personal items to families of the deceased.
During the Wuhan lockdown, foreign TV networks showed local smartphone footage of COVID patients lining up outside hospitals and clamoring for life-saving care. 76 Days for the first time shows what happened to those Wuhan residents when they gained entry to hospitals where intensive care units were pushed to the breaking point.
“The emotional beat of the individual stories is so different, so I hope my audience can distinguish the characters using the sound of their voices rather than their physical gestures,” Wu insists.
76 Days also takes viewers to Wuhan, a city of 11 million people barely known outside of China before it was thrust into a global spotlight as it ground to a halt in a frontline battle against the new coronavirus.
Wu says he aimed to go beyond often misleading international media coverage of Wuhan and its 76 day lockdown to offer stories of extreme distress, but ultimately of human resilience and hope during a time of profound tragedy.
“Whenever we hear news from Wuhan, it’s about an incident, or geopolitical battles and finger-pointing,” he explains. So 76 Days deliberately avoids a timeline of events during Wuhan’s lockdown, or network news clips and talking heads.
“We’ve been so exposed to all of that,” Wu insists. “My intention was for the audience to be immersed so it could truly understand the human cost of this pandemic and a hope that can sustain us through the pandemic.”
The Chinese-American director does not see 76 Days as antidote to conspiracy theories arguing the novel coronavirus was sown in a Wuhan laboratory and let loose globally as a bio-weapon.
“I don’t believe this film has anything to refute those conspiracy theories,” Wu says. “People will continue to believe whatever they read. My intention is for viewers to focus more on how around the world we’re dealing with COVID similarly, rather than differently. My film aims to focus our energy on how we can all endure and survive the pandemic and come back stronger.”