The Oscar-contending documentary 76 Days, set in hospitals in Wuhan, China as the city endured lockdown after the eruption of Covid-19, is cinéma vérité par excellence. No sit-down interviews, no TV news reports spliced in—just the pure visual drama of medical workers and patients ensnared in an unprecedented crisis.
“In the early days of edit…we were still thinking about putting some news clips or some social media videos around the scenes to give the film a little bit more context of what’s happening,” director Hao Wu tells Deadline. “But then in the end…the scenes themselves were so powerful, anytime we add something else to it, it distracts, made it worse.”
The powerful scenes range from a nurse agonized with grief as the body of her father, a Covid victim, is wheeled out of the hospital, to patients and families left out in the cold, banging on a door to get into the facility, to a woman possibly infected with the virus giving birth to a baby. She is permitted to look at her newborn for only a few moments before the infant is spirited away to safety.
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“The images and the emotions stayed so strong with me,” Wu recalls. “Originally we also had more [explanatory] title cards, but in the end we said, ‘Let’s take it away. Let’s just strip it to the bare minimum. It’s just human emotions.’”
Wu, who was born in China but makes his home in New York, was visiting Shanghai when the Chinese government sealed off Wuhan to preempt the spread of Covid. On his return to the U.S. he says an American network contacted him about making a film on the Wuhan outbreak.
“Usually, I’m the kind of filmmaker who doesn’t like to chase newsy topics because…a lot of times, what can I bring to a subject matter that’s been so well-covered?” the director observes. “But I guess for Covid-19, it’s really different. I think all of us have been personally affected.”
With travel back to China a non-starter and Wuhan in lockdown, Wu faced the imperative of finding co-directors on the ground. He selected two young filmmakers after watching footage they and other potential collaborators shared with him.
“As soon as I saw their footage, I was like, ‘Let’s find a way to work together,’” Wu remembers. “Fascinating is the wrong word. I was just entranced. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is truly what it is like on the frontline.’”
Collaborating at such a distance posed inevitable challenges.
“Every day after the shoot, they would upload their footage onto the cloud and share the login with me. Once they upload it, I can download in New York,” Wu explains. “I also gave them pointers of how to do coverage, but mostly they made decisions by themselves because it was so chaotic inside a hospital. Whoever we decide to be the main character, the next day the situation might improve or change dramatically. They might be transferred to a different ward or even a different hospital. A couple of them actually passed away.”
In one scene, an ICU nurse disinfects cell phones and other belongings of patients who didn’t survive. Some of the phones still ring; on one device the home screen notes, “31 unread messages.” The nurse reflects, “Rich or poor, revered or despised—fate befalls all. What a tragedy. Nobody can escape.”
76 Days is dedicated to “frontline medical workers worldwide.” The heroism and compassion of the nurses and doctors in Wuhan, dressed head-to-toe in their crinkly white PPE costumes, comes through forcefully. They put their lives on the line at a time when no one knew how fatal Covid would be, yet one nurse sent to Wuhan comments, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s our luck to encounter it.”
“[76 Days] is a story about Wuhan, but it’s really also a story about healthcare workers everywhere,” observes Wu. “Maybe in the U.S. here, we’re seeing not enough visual evidence for different reasons. It’s difficult for cameras to go inside a hospital during the pandemic here.”
The politics of the Covid response in China and elsewhere exist outside the frame of 76 Days, with the possible exception of one moment when a loudspeaker on a public street crackles with the announcement, “Don’t fabricate, believe or spread rumors. So we can unite as a collective whole.”
Although Wu took a ground-level view of the crisis in his film, he was well aware of the politics.
“Once the pandemic hit the U.S. and Trump started calling this a ‘China virus, Wuhan virus, China flu, kung flu,’ stoking all this kind of anti-China sentiment and Asian sentiment, China became extremely, aggressively defensive,” Wu notes. “So it really tried to control its narrative, tightening media control of any story coming out of Wuhan about its pandemic control.”
As a direct result of that, Wu’s two Chinese co-directors suddenly abandoned the project.
“They stopped collaborating with me because they just don’t want to get into trouble,” Wu says. “They were like, ‘I don’t know whether I can trust you.’”
Wu pressed forward with editing the film, even when the U.S. network he had partnered with lost interest after Covid became a worldwide, not just a Wuhan, story. He eventually hooked up with MTV Documentary Films under Sheila Nevins. 76 Days has gone on to win awards at AFI Fest, the Heartland Film Festival, and a nomination as best documentary from the IFP Gotham Awards.
Now 76 Days finds itself in the thick of the Oscar race. But the filmmaker keeps in mind not just the immediate prospects for his documentary, but how it may be appreciated in the much longer term.
“Hopefully 20, 30 years from now, when people want to understand the Covid-19 pandemic,” he says, “hopefully they will remember to watch my film.”
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