76 Days‘ rhythms are occasionally uneven, but it remains a fascinating glimpse at one of the defining crises of our times.
There’s a harrowing sense of immediacy to Hao Wu and Weixi Chen‘s new documentary, 76 Days, which provides a fly-on-the-wall look at the early response to COVID-19 in a Wuhan hospital. It may seem awfully soon for a film about an ongoing crisis, but this film is the kind of indispensable historical document that could one day be viewed as one of the essential texts of the era.
Set in what is essentially ground zero for the novel coronavirus pandemic, 76 Days follows a group of doctors and nurses (all anonymously clad in head-to-toe PPE) as they deal with overwhelming demand, dying patients, and a virus unlike anything they’ve ever seen. Shot in jittery verité-style, the film is often unsettled and on edge, which creates a palpable sense of uncertainty around its subjects. The filmmakers try their best to draw out narratives from the chaos — an elderly man’s constant escape attempts, a young couple’s yearning to see their newborn baby born in the middle of the outbreak — but 76 Days is at its best when it isn’t trying to sift through the footage to create identifiable arcs for its disparate characters. What really sticks are the quiet moments: nurses looking for small moments of respite, a mountain of cell phones from dead patients waiting on a nurse to sort through them, the matter-of-fact informing of families whose loved ones have passed away.
Yet what is perhaps most striking about 76 Days is the stark contrast between the Chinese response to the coronavirus and that of the United States, where rugged individualism and an incompetent president have prolonged the pandemic far beyond the original deadly outbreak in Wuhan. When the lockdown is finally lifted in April of 2020 after 76 days, it’s a moment of catharsis, a catharsis that has as of yet been denied to the United States, which has done very little to contain the spread of COVID-19 while Wuhan has mostly returned to normal. And so, while the documentary stays hyper-focused on the response in a single hospital in Wuhan, it is the dichotomy between the US and Chinese responses that, at least for this American critic, was ultimately hardest to shake. That so many Chinese put their lives on hold for the greater good, while so many Americans continue to childishly protest the inconvenience of wearing a mask in public, makes our national response look like a colossal failure. While the rhythms of 76 Days are occasionally uneven, its immediacy never wanes, offering a frayed, fractured, and fascinating glimpse into the very heart of one of the defining crises of our time.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 4.