In a year ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, it is perhaps fitting that the first major full-length feature documentary examining the outbreak is set in Wuhan, the Chinese city that was the first epicentre of the international crisis.
76 Days, a 93-minute film that shows powerful footage of the chaos and panic inside Wuhan in the initial days of the outbreak when the unknown virus had just begun to wreak havoc, had its world premiere at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The documentary spans the period from January 23 to April 8 this year when Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Hubei province, was placed under a lockdown following the coronavirus outbreak.
The film was made by Hao Wu, a New York-based Chinese director, who collaborated with two China-based reporters as co-directors – Weixi Chen and another associate identified only as “Anonymous”.
With the Chinese government reportedly trying to conceal its failure to have warned the world of the onset of the snowballing health crisis, the film’s creators requested the first viewers at the TIFF to “refrain from discussing identifying details contained in the film” so as to “avoid any potential government interference with the film, and with the filmmakers in China, before the film’s wider release”.
The film’s production notes say, “China is imposing strict controls over the narrative of its Covid-19 response, and the footage contained in this film is unprecedented in its access.”
The film shows doctors, nurses and paramedics striving to control a torrent of patients pouring into hospitals even as health authorities seek to downplay the outbreak with repeated calls of: “Don’t panic.”
The documentary starts with the wailing of a woman who wants to see her dead father’s corpse once last time, and shows a box in which ID cards and phones of the dead are placed.
Hao, the filmmaker, recalled spending the Chinese New Year holidays in Shanghai as “a panic was setting in all over China”, adding, “It became increasingly clear that the local government had lied and suppressed whistleblowers to conceal the outbreak. It also became apparent that the situation was dire in Wuhan – people were dying, hospitals were overwhelmed, and medical personnel did not have adequate protection, so they too were getting sick and dying. The country was angry. I was angry.”
Hao explained that he paired up with his China-based team in order “to avoid attracting attention”. The filmmaker’s teammates filmed in four hospitals and shared the raw footage online with Hao, who then took it forward.
The film that was eventually put together underlines human suffering at the hands of a deadly and unknown virus as well as the heroism of medical personnel struggling to save lives in a dystopian backdrop of an escalating health crisis.
Hao said his team members “risked their own lives to film in the hospitals, especially when the danger of the coronavirus was little understood in the early days of the Wuhan lockdown”.
Hao’s co-directors entered the containment zone donning protective gear that resembled space suits. At one point, they feared for their safety and the project had to be halted when China began cracking down on non-official information being released from the country.
However, after Wuhan’s lockdown was lifted, Hao persuaded them to return to ground zero to complete the filming, which eventually resulted in a documentary that the TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey described as “urgent, powerful filmmaking”.
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