(China/U.S., 2020, 93 min)
Dir. Hao Wu, Anonymous and Weixi Chen
Programme: TIFF Docs
By this time next year, we’ll be inundated with COVID films. I hope we’ll be spared the dubious pleasure of watching a pandemic rom-com but half expect to see a darkly comic one emerge by next spring. But that’s in the future. What’s true now is that the very first superb COVID documentary has been produced and it’s at TIFF.
76 Days is a classic cinema verité doc, which effectively depicts what happened at hospitals in Wuhan, China from February to April in the midst of the pandemic. Plunging us directly into the action, we see a nurse screaming in agony as she isn’t allowed to touch her father as he dies of COVID. In the same hospital, bodies are on the move, being wheeled in mobile hospital beds into crowded rooms already filled with despairing patients. At the entrance, we can see that freezing outdoor conditions are adding to the panic as desperate COVID infected invalids are told to wait by the overly taxed nurses. Doctors are moving quickly—almost running—as they try to attend to the sick and the dying. The rhythm of the editing in the opening scenes is quietly bravura: you only notice it later as sequences slow down when conditions begin to improve as spring approaches.
Creating stories during the chaos must have been nearly impossible but the tripartite directorial team—Weixi Chen and Anonymous shot in China while Hao Wu oversaw editing and post production in New York—were able to follow through on some of the characters. Two emerge powerfully for me. A female nurse, whose grace and compassion when informing the family of people who have died is remarkable. Towards the end of the film, we see her return a grandmother’s cell phone to her granddaughter. Both women show dignity and respect as they express mutual apologies to each other. The best scenes are with an elderly man with dementia who continually tries to leave the hospital though he’s initially quite ill. Dealing with this “grandfather” obviously tries the nerves of the staff but you see affection towards him as he slowly understands what he’s been through for the past 76 days.
A deeply humanist film, 76 Days is a most worthy documentary to be seen in this age of COVID.
Read more about 76 Days in our interview with director Hao Wu