Directed by Wu Hao, co-directed by Chen Weixi and an anonymous member of the Chinese state-run media
China and US, 2020
Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles
93 minutes in duration
The film 76 Days has been available at many international film festivals and became widely available to North American residents via virtual cinema beginning on December 4 with other international screenings also available. See 76 Days.
This review benefited from a behind-the-scenes perspective shared by the director, Wu Hao, in an excellent online, live-only (no recording) 90-minute interview done by Chinese Storytellers on October 30, 2020. A number of good reviews can be found here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
It seems strange to be reviewing a documentary about an international disaster that, in one sense, is not past history, but present reality. As 2020 comes to an end, the recent upsurge in cases all around the world—the nearly maxed-out ICUs and special Covid-19 units in hospitals—reminds us that we are continuing to write this history. We need not wonder to ourselves what it was like, because many of us are still experiencing some level of impact from the Covid-19 pandemic.
And yet, Wu Hao knew that this particular story, the 76 days of lockdown in Wuhan, was one that needed to be told.
Prior to viewing, from the title we might anticipate a wide coverage of various situations in a locked-down Wuhan. In actuality, the film covers relatively little territory. The videographers (co-directors) were given special access inside four hospitals in Wuhan, and sent video files to Wu in New York throughout the lockdown period. The collage of real-life footage documents in painful detail the “ground zero” of the pandemic, almost entirely in hospital settings. There were no “retakes,” and no reenactments (and Wu points out in his interview that wherever possible, permission was granted to take video of specific persons).
The film is structured differently than Wu’s other documentaries (ChinaSource has reviewed Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire), in that it doesn’t follow a character arc. If there is any kind of story development, Wu says, it is a subtle transition from fear to mourning.
Combing through the vast amount of footage Wu received, he attempted some character consistency, but the story he tells is not of a person or persons in their experience of the early and scariest days of the pandemic. One of the film’s great strengths is that, rather than give the audience an experience of the pandemic through someone else’s eyes, Wu takes the audience inside, and allows you to experience it for yourself. What was it like to be one of the doctors or nurses in a hospital in Wuhan? What was the experience of a patient in one of the wards?
Wu says that making a “documentary is like creative non-fiction; emotional truth is more important than factual truth.” Though the veracity of the footage is difficult to doubt, the punch-in-the-gut you walk away with is equally unmistakable. Despite the “happy ending” that comes with the lifting of the lockdown, the film is raw from beginning to end.
Nevertheless, the film is not without light moments as well. One elderly gentleman provides sporadic comic relief in an otherwise very tense and grim 90 minutes. You feel the playfulness of the medical staff as they don their PPEs, drawing cute cartoons in addition to their names for identification. In another humorous moment (and one we should all take note of!), a woman is reading a Baidu article (a Chinese version of Google) on her phone, and tells the nurse that her “levels of IgG and IgM are higher than normal.” The nurse responds loudly, “Don’t read Baidu! Listen to your doctors!”
The reviews linked above give a good sense of the film overall, but one particular scene, along with these brief patches of light dispersed throughout an otherwise dark film, provides another angle on the lockdown that no other reviewer has mentioned. Without speculating on Wu Hao’s spiritual orientation, it seems significant that, out of the many, many hours of footage he viewed, and out of the many clips that initially made it into the film and were later cut, he included the following brief exchange.
An elderly woman is sitting in her hospital bed, and the camera gives a close-up of her face while she is speaking. She is praying, giving thanks to God and to Jesus. A doctor approaches her and says, “Since you believe in Jesus, are you praying every night?”
“I pray for the doctors and nurses,” she responds.
The doctor responds, “We really appreciate your prayers. God is connected to you; God has brought us to care for you.”
Whether Wu was aware of it or not, his inclusion of this brief exchange highlights the role that many Christians played both during the lockdown and after the most extreme restrictions were lifted. Even in the darkest places, hope can rise, and Christians in China know well how to carry that torch!
Image credit: 76 Days trailer.
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