Wuhan footage breaks onto screens in Hao Wu’s 2020 documentary “76 Days”

With a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes and shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature Film in this year’s Academy Awards, 76 Days is a film like no other. 

In an hour and 33 minutes, this high intensity documentary is startling and deeply sad, revealing footage shot during the 76-day lockdown in Wuhan last year, as the first insidious bouts of Covid-19 swept destructively through the city. 

In the opening scenes, we see crowds of elderly people anxiously waiting behind closed hospital doors, desperate to be admitted and terrified to be left outside. “We will admit everyone” a head nurse reassures the freezing people, “Please don’t push!”.

The camera cuts to a nurse breaking down outside a ward bedroom, begging to see her late father one last time. His body is wheeled out covered in plastic. “I want to hear my papa sing” the nurse cries in shock, confused and devastated at such sudden loss.

If nothing else, this film wholly reveals the stark reality healthcare workers faced during the first covid wave: between holding the bereft nurse’s hand and trying to comfort her, reality set in for the overworked staff that couldn’t afford to lose a nurse. “Screaming won’t do any good,” a colleague worries, “what happens if you faint? We all have to work this afternoon.”. 

Filmmakers Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Jean Tsien, alongside others that remain anonymous, captured both the fear and panic striking Wuhan as covid-19 emerged as a killer, but also the gritty determination of hospitals to manage the chaos and attempt to save lives. 

Nurses and doctors move through wards as huge white figures, their names written on the back of their PPE, along with kind messages and drawings of flowers. No facial expressions can be seen. These workers are so masked and covered in plastic that it’s hard to believe they don’t collapse of heat and exhaustion, as they press on with resolute empathy, procedure, and care. 

I felt claustrophobic just watching the nurses try to see through their condensation-filled goggles, holding hands and comforting patients; spouses who were separated, isolated elderly people, and those battling the disease alongside the grief of losing parents, and other family members.

One terrified woman is admitted with her father, after waking up beside her mother “stone cold”. Grieving for her mother in the hospital’s sterile ward, the bereft lady tries to focus on recovering, and the health of her father. “You must stay strong” nurses encourage her, trying desperately to comfort those deeply afraid, longing for their own people who can’t enter the hospital to be with them. “Your family is not here, so we are your family now,”.

It is rare that human emotion is captured so rawly, and this precedent of undiluted emotion set in the opening scenes continued unwaveringly throughout the film’s entirety. We see a Covid positive man affected by dementia, frustrated, struggling to understand why he has been admitted, and a baby delivered only to be immediately separated from her mother due to a positive covid-19 test. 

“Ten months of pregnancy and a surgery, and I still haven’t held her” the gentle young woman wonders aloud to her husband, when they are reunited but baby-less, in hotel quarantine.

Who knows how the camera crew got so close and caught so much on film, like an intimate moment when a tiny baby is held for the first time by her mother. We are privy even to her mother’s little tears, trickling in awe as she sees her beautiful baby for the first time, days after giving birth.

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How was the film made?

Born in China and now based in New York, biologist-turned director Hao Wu spoke to Hollywood news site Deadline about how his colleagues in Wuhan managed to film the footage. Although some Wuhan hospitals kept their wards a media-free zone in February, the cameramen somehow gained unrestricted access to four intensive care units, allowing them to film over 200 hours of footage before filming was banned in March 2020. 

Wu’s previous films include other documentaries such as the award-winning People’s Republic of Desire and the Netflix original film All in My Family. He explains in the interview that although 76 Days is now a contender in the Oscars, he really hopes it can act as a historical document of the time in the longer term. 

“Hopefully 20, 30 years from now, when people want to understand the Covid-19 pandemic,” he told Deadline, “hopefully they will remember to watch my film.”.

76 Days has already won awards at the Heartland Film and AFI film festivals, and has been nominated also for the IFP Gotham Awards – and I am not really surprised, even though this is one of saddest films I have ever watched. It’s harrowing depiction laments those who died at the cruel hands of Covid-19, a message resonating in the final shots. Heartbreaking sirens wail throughout Wuhan on 4 April 2020 to mourn those who died before lockdown was finally lifted. 

As a film about Covid-19 that is devoid of political commentary, music, or professors with explanations, it felt very open, non manipulative, and unusually stark. It lets the experience of real people speak for itself; in contrast to the usual media portrayals. 

The next generations may find 76 Days like a dystopian horror film, with neither medics nor patients prepared for this silent alien threat. A late patient’s phone beeps “31 unread messages”, the city streets are sparse, and hope, fear, and grief hang everywhere.

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Emma Monaghan

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