Director: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous
Writer and Editor: Hao Wu
Producer: Jao Wu, Jean Tsien
76 Days, the titular character, refers to the number of days Wuhan- the initial epicenter of the global COVID19 pandemic- was in lockdown. This was when COVID19 was an epidemic- contained within a border- and not the pandemic, raging across continents, that it has become since.
The documentary takes us into the heart of where the war was being waged- the hospital ward- from the early days of chaos, helpless mourning, and rationing limited hospital beds, to the later months filled with reconciled grief, and remnants of the dead being returned to their living relatives. It thus posits itself as a story of hope. There is an old man, a Community Party member, reeling under both the respiratory disease and an early onset of dementia. There is also a newborn child – Little Penguin- being born to parents exposed to the virus. It’s a story of survival, embedded in slick video footage of the city, that evolves over the months from an empty ghost-town to a populated, masked one. (The footage of the ward is shaky, tense, and intimate, composed thoughtfully- ‘Anonymous’, one of the directors in China, is a photographer, so this makes sense.)
This arc of hope as one can imagine, feels premature given how most countries are still cluelessly navigating the chaos. It thus feels too wispy to be of any lasting impact. What instead worked, was the harrowing pain that the job of a caretaker entailed- cloaked in hazmat suits, behind goggles that fog up uncomfortably, with gloves taped to the suit. (I couldn’t help but wonder- so much progress, and it is the adhesive of one sticky tape that prevents a caretaker from being infected.)
The documentary begins in-medias-res with caretakers running after a daughter, mourning for her father, “I want to listen to papa sing.” They hold her hands, and it’s so poignant- that gloved and layered human touch was meant to comfort as much as to restrain her from lounging at the cadaver. The first half is filled with melancholy, grappling with the human condition. The doctors and nurses draw flowers and write hopeful messages on their suits and gloves- wearing joy, literally, on their sleeves.
The makers of the film, Hao Wu in America, with his on-the-ground filmmakers – one of whom chooses to be anonymous – are clear that this is not a political documentary. Both the agony and the hope must be construed as removed from the politics of the virus in order for it to be savoured as was intended.
But, for me at least, the subject is so inherently political, that even these individual stories and anxieties dusted off of any political connotation are constantly foregrounded by news reports, daily death rates, government inefficiencies and the larger community’s unwillingness to call out China’s irresponsible reaction in the immediate aftermath.
Perhaps it is the apolitical-ness of it that gave us access to the hospital. Wu notes that the Chinese filmmakers, Weixi Chen and ‘Anonymous’ were initially skeptical, not knowing how the footage would play into a narrative that would invite the ire of the Chinese government. But it is the very apolitical-ness of it that makes the film’s hope wispy but agony palpable. Perhaps, this was why the film left me with an incomplete aftertaste.
76 Days is showing at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (October 29- November 4)