76 Days, one of the 16 documentaries screened at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival, is a close-up of death. The title refers to the 76 days that Wuhan, the Chinese city which was ground zero for the outbreak of Covid-19, was under lockdown. The film was shot in four Wuhan hospitals without government approval and has three directors – Chinese-American documentarian Hao Wu; Weixi Chen, who is the video reporter for Esquire China (this is his feature directorial debut); and the third, is simply billed as Anonymous. Presumably because Chinese authorities might not like what they see.
The documentary is frenzied, claustrophobic reportage from the frontlines of the fight against Covid. We are immersed in the action without the comfort of a voice-over or direct-to-camera interviews. Instead, we get scene upon scene of chaos – doctors and nurses in hazmat suits racing to keep up with the influx of sick people; a crowd banging for entry at the hospital door where beds are running out; overwhelmed medical workers, frantic patients; and the most heartbreaking – phones, ID cards and other artefacts of the patients who didn't survive. One phone keeps beeping – the screen says: 31 unread messages.
From this grim scenario, storylines emerge. There is humour and even, moments of grace. The nurses decorate their plastic outfits with magic markers. We can barely see their faces behind their fogged goggles and masks but we keenly sense their perseverance and their exhaustion. One patient rightly calls them fearless soldiers. What's especially moving is that they go beyond just looking after the sick. Yang Li, the head nurse tries to make a human connection with patients and grieving families. She steps outside the hospital building to return the bracelet of a dead woman to her daughter. They stand on opposite sides of a barrier, strangers, connected by a virus and a shared humanity.
76 Days is a harrowing portrait of the world we live in right now – versions of this scenario have played out in Italy, America and India – but what resonates most strongly is that even in the throes of death, life persists. A Covid-positive mother gives birth at the hospital. The baby is immediately removed and kept in the natal unit. She is nicknamed Little Penguin by the nurses – the baby's unknowing, peaceful face signals hope. We will get through this yet.
There is a subdued strain of hope in Oscar-winning actor Regina King's directorial debut One Night in Miami. The film, based on a play by Kemp Powers, is a fictionalized account of a meeting between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (who would soon be rechristened Muhammad Ali), pop star Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown. The film imagines that these four Black icons, who were friends in real life, met at a Miami motel in February 1964 after Ali's historic win over Sonny Liston, which made him heavyweight champion of the world. But what is meant to be a fun after-party turns into a searing exploration of racism, Black rights, celebrity and personal responsibility.
One Night in Miami is dialogue-heavy. Most of the action takes place in a hotel room. It's a challenging set-up but King doesn't let the drama dilute. The action is in the words. The four passionately parry and thrust. There is high emotion and egos are bruised. The talkiness of the film works because the actors are so solid – Eli Goree as Clay, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke and Aldis Hodge as Brown. Ben-Adir is the breakout star.
I don't know when either film will be available in India but I recommend that you make a note of the titles. Both have received rave reviews and One Night in Miami is already being touted as an awards front-runner. I suspect you will be hearing more about these films in the coming months