The title typography on the opening credits and the poster of 76 Days looks very much like a riff on Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and the film does have the same element of horror and panic. Actually, it means the 76-day lockdown imposed at the beginning of the year on the city of Wuhan, the ground zero of the global Covid-19 pandemic. This movie from the Chinese documentary film-maker Hao Wu, working with newcomer Weixi Chen and also a film-maker and camera operator called simply “Anonymous”, is a study of Wuhan’s hospital workers and the healthcare professionals as they battle to keep the mounting tide of human fear and grief under control.
Watching this film in the shadow of a possible or probable second lockdown is gruelling. It is brutal to see once again the hospital workers in their full PPE and hazmat suits, with names written on them in marker pens. Actually, the film brought back memories of the BBC correspondent Fergus Walsh’s harrowing report on Britain’s embattled NHS workers in April.
As a study of healthcare professionals under intolerable pressure – which is what it is – this is a very good film. As a study of the wider experience of Wuhan under lockdown it is arguably lacking, because it rarely if ever leaves the hospital precincts, it doesn’t raise any questions about the political leadership or the exact statistics for Wuhan’s (and China’s) Covid deaths and certainly never goes anywhere near the city’s notorious wet markets where the virus is believed to have originated, and which have been reopened, though in restricted form. And there is, perhaps, nothing in this film which will necessarily displease the Chinese government.
But no one could doubt the horrible power of its most wrenching scenes, especially those at the very beginning in which a woman dressed in the same forbidding PPE suit as the doctors and nurses – all of them like astronauts on some hostile disease-ridden planet – is not permitted to say her final farewell to her father, and is forced to bow repeatedly to the door which has been closed in her face.
It is almost beyond the limits of endurance to see a bracelet removed with difficulty from the wrist of a dead woman, which must then be returned to her next of kin, along with various documents. The nursing staff have a box full of smartphones belonging to the dead — the digital repositories of their entire existences — and these too must be returned to the survivors, as respectfully as photographs or watches might have been returned in earlier times. At another moment, a nurse has to break the news to someone that “grandma” has died and then: “We need a photo of her ID card.”
There are moments of bleak comedy. An old man keeps complaining and sobbing and finally we hear him getting a phone call from someone who asks if he is a Communist party member, and if so, he should be a “model”: “You are driving the nurses crazy with your crying!”
76 Days is not a hard-hitting documentary about the centre of the Covid-19 pandemic – maybe such a film will be slower to arrive than the vaccine – but it’s a potent human-interest story, and a portrait of a city under siege.
76 Days is screening at the Toronto film festival with a release date yet to be announced