On Jan. 23, 2020, the Chinese government ordered the city of Wuhan locked down to slow the spread of COVID-19. Documentary filmmakers Hao Wu and Weixi Chen, along with an anonymous correspondent, were there and captured unimaginable access to the patients and professionals working in Wuhan Red Cross Hospital. 76 Days is a chronicle of those stories.
The nature of the present COVID pandemic is, despite breathtaking news coverage, a lot sadder, slower and, in some ways, scarier than the traditional depiction of a massive viral outbreak.
There are groups of people who refuse to believe COVID-19 is real because they never encounter its worst impacts on a personal level (including the current President of the United States, who clearly does not give a fuck). There are others who flaunt basic protocols to prevent the spread to anyone at risk — by avoiding mask use in public, for instance. Others encourage risky behaviors because they’re desperate for the world to return to normal despite the fact that a new normal is global and will likely be so well into 2021. All of these antisocial reactions are, I think, due in part to the lack of drama inherent in a COVID infection. The Ebola epidemic in 2014 that killed two Americans? Drama! You’re going to vomit blood! COVID-19? Well, hey. Only some of the 269,000 American dead and counting managed anything of the sort.
76 Days doesn’t opine on anything beyond the lives of those connected to Wuhan Red Cross Hospital. It certainly doesn’t have anything to say directly about which governments and populaces have responded better. Rather, it’s as slow, personal and surprisingly quiet as the current epidemic itself. Truthfully, it is somewhat boring at times. But that’s just it, isn’t it? COVID-19 isn’t a dramatic illness for anyone but the patient suffering and those tasked with trying to save them in their moments of distress. Everything else is just silence, waiting and dread.
Whether audiences will have the stomach for 76 Days is a question with which I have a hard time grappling. Unlike last year’s For Sama — a story also told from the inside of a hospital during a catastrophe (a broad comparison, I admit) — 76 Days is a hard story to dismissively shake off as being “over there.” This film has no role as a cautionary communication because everything it contains is playing out everywhere. Nothing in Wuhan is fundamentally different from what the global community is presently experiencing. This isn’t something that could happen here or did happen here, it’s something that continues to happen here.
Maybe the operative word is “overwhelming.” 76 Days isn’t trying to tell a big, dramatic story. Frankly, it lacks that narrative flair. Instead, it depicts the heroism and tragedies across the smaller stories that take place in the hospital. A nurse who can’t say goodbye to her father because he died of the virus in her own ward. A pregnant couple that grapples with the worry that their newborn might be seriously ill. An elderly man stuck in the hospital. An older husband and wife who are both infected. Nurses finding ways to find levity in their day-to-day, like painting their PPE. The lead nurse making calls to families of the deceased. What makes 76 Days an arduous view is that the span of time it covers is truly arbitrary. The Wuhan lockdown was lifted, but nothing the film depicts is close to resolution. It’s a catastrophic clusterfuck and we’re all regular people doing our best to cope with it.