Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. MTV Documentary Films releases it in virtual cinemas on Friday, December 4.
A medical worker in a hazmat suit wails in pain as her father’s body is wheeled towards the morgue; her colleagues at the exhausted hospital plead with her to “control herself” because they desperately need her to keep working. A door handle jiggles down the hallway as a horde of desperate people try to force their way inside. A plastic box labeled “ID cards and phones of the dead” rattles with ghosts that have yet to depart. A woman cries as she’s prepared for a C-section, begging the hospital staff to let her husband come and sit by her side, but the COVID threat makes it impossible to honor such a request. “Don’t worry,” one of the nurses offers. “So many of us are here for you.”
On January 23, 2020 — nine months and a million lifetimes ago — the city of Wuhan, China was placed under lockdown in an effort to choke out the coronavirus that had already made the densely populated capital of Hubei Province synonymous with of the worst pandemic in more than a century. The virus was already spreading around the world in silence and seeding a similar nightmare wherever it went, but for a brief window of time Wuhan was on its own; the terror and isolation that people experienced in the local hospitals a microcosm for the suffocating dread that sucked all the air out of the vacuum-sealed city around them.
While Wuhan’s story would soon be retold in places like Northern Italy and New York City, the remarkable documentary “76 Days” offers a bracingly immediate view from the frontlines of history — at the trauma and disequilibrium of being ambushed by a crisis dire enough to define its century. Discretely shot across four Wuhan hospitals without government approval, and premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival just a few months later, this fly-in-the-trenches look inside the outbreak is scattered and structureless in a way that makes it seem as if it’s simply taking notes for the history books of the future. But if Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and their anonymous co-director’s film is more valuable as a time capsule than it is as a piece of cinéma vérité, it still puts a human face on an epochal horror that some people have refused to acknowledge even as it rages around them.
A human face, but few actual human faces. Critics reviewing “76 Days” have been encouraged not to name any of the individual subjects who appear in the film, and as amusing as it might be to imagine a crony from the Chinese government scouring IndieWire for state intel (and maybe getting hyped about Luca Guadagnino’s new HBO show in the process), the truth is that I couldn’t identify many of the people in this movie if I tried. The medical workers who comprise the main cast are so thoroughly hidden behind masks, face shields, and “Andromeda Strain”-ready layers of PPE that it’s only possible to keep track of them by their bedside manners and the messages of hope they scrawl in magic marker across their scrubs.
It’s an obstacle that Wu — a New York filmmaker whose brilliant “People’s Republic of Desire” remains one of the most lucid documentaries about our dystopia-like digital future — and his China-based collaborators that he’s never met in person recognized immediately and did everything in their power to accommodate. Seen through the bloodshot eye of the storm,“76 Days” eschews a more holistic narrative in favor of a more fragmented approach. While a few “storylines” gradually emerge (a senile old man keeps trying to walk out of one hospital, an adorable newborn the nurses dub “Little Penguin” for her jet of black hair waits to be claimed by her anxious parents in another), this is a film that seldom exists beyond the task at hand.
That tunnel vision reflects the myopia of needing help, and also the myopia of trying to give it to tens of thousands of desperate people at once. Much like a shift at any of the hospitals seen here, “76 Days” is just one thing after another after another. Day turns into night turns into day turns into March turns into who knows, the cumulative grief pooling into the margins of a movie that only ends when it runs out of strength to dam the pain in place and unleashes a heart-wrenching howl that continues to ring in your ears long after the credits roll.
Until then, it’s a relentless and seemingly random string of high-strung panic and horrifyingly routine paperwork. Some moments feel like they were shot by George Romero, others by Frederick Wiseman, but the unique work of reportage that incorporates them both is all the more harrowing because of how fluidly it bleeds those two modes together until life and death are superimposed in a way that makes it hard to know where one ends and the other begins. A medical worker laments the intubation scars on a patient’s face. Another rescues a bracelet off an old woman’s corpse and saves it for a family member of the deceased. One patient receives a phone call from a friend who leaves some curious words of encouragement for his doctors: “He’s been a Communist Party member for 30 years — please remind him of that.”
That might be the most overtly political moment in a documentary that — whatever the filmmakers’ misgivings with the Chinese government’s response to the virus — is determined to refocus our attention on the regular people who had to suffer the consequences. The medical workers seen in the movie are an unambiguous credit to their country, and to their species. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” one of them insists with unfathomable resolve. “It’s our luck to encounter it.”
That indomitable spirit would soon prove to be every bit as contagious as the virus that inspired it, just as the Chinese government’s self-perpetuated inability to protect its citizens would be reflected by its rival superpower on the other side of the planet. For better or worse, there’s nothing like a pandemic to show people around the globe how much they have in common. Shaggy and slapped together as it may be, “76 Days” is an urgent act of witnessing for a world that only tends to see itself clearly in hindsight; the film’s value to future generations is self-evident, but it has just as much to show us in the here and now about the history we’re making alone and together.
“76 Days” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.