Rich or poor, revered or despised—fate befalls all.”
So says the head nurse at a hospital in Wuhan, China. Covered head-to-toe in safety garments, rubber gloves, surgical mask, and a face shield, she scrubs cell phones, ID cards, and jewelry of the dead. She works alone, muttering to herself while she sterilizes and bags the ephemera. “What a tragedy. Nobody can escape.”
On Jan. 23, 2020, the Chinese government locked down the city of Wuhan—home to 11 million souls—in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown would remain in place until April 8, 76 days of overwhelming uncertainty and loss.
76 Days, from directors Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and Anonymous, captures these moments with a cinema vérité approach on the front lines. The hospital is treated as ground zero, with doctors and nurses playing soldiers. Each one is completely covered and indistinguishable from the next. Some have Chinese characters written on their safety suits; others have drawings. They are the only forms of identity you should expect. None are interviewed, and—save for a handful of title cards—the filmmakers provide no factual information. It’s like trying to understand World War I from a trench in France.
The sick are treated similarly: All of their faces are covered either by a mask or a ventilator. When they die, the bodies are whisked away in tightly sealed bags. Not even a grieving daughter can look upon her father’s face once more. The only face that will become familiar to you is of an older gentleman. He’s restless and wanders the halls constantly. He wants to leave, but he’s contracted the virus and is told to stay put. He doesn’t, and the nurses whisper of dementia. Then there is the young couple that gives birth to their first child. And Mom and Dad must quarantine while the child waits at the NICU.
It’s all very intriguing, if not entertaining. Based in New York City, director Wu was working on a documentary to expose the Chinese government’s cover-up of COVID when he came across two reporters covering the outbreak in Wuhan: Chen and Anonymous. They shared their footage with Wu until government restrictions tightened in late March. Wu then shaped the footage he had into 76 Days—a piece of contemporary history that will serve future archivists well.
The only problem: Wu fails to instill any connection between the individuals inside the Wuhan hospital and the audience. It’s a missed opportunity, one that isn’t apparent until the end of the documentary. We are told that on April 4, air raid sirens blared all over Wuhan to mourn the dead. Car horns join the chorus, and citizens weep—an entire city wailing as one.
76 Days (2020)
Directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous
Produced by Hao Wu, Jean Tsien
MTV Documentary Films, Not rated, Running time 93 minutes, Opens Dec. 4, 2020, at Denver Film’s virtual theater.