“News,” so the saying goes, “is the first rough draft of history.” 76 Days may not exactly be news — even upon premiering at TIFF in September, it was five months after its own facts — but it neatly illustrates how negligible the distinction is between artists and journalists. The only difference between this 93-minute documentary and a special report on a major current affairs show is the length. Think of the team behind 76 Days as journalist-filmmakers, then, bringing us news with the immediate topicality supplanted by extraordinary insight and compassion.

Regardless of its now-historical timeframe, however, it’s hard to imagine any film as topical as this. In an extraordinary feat of filmmaking, to extraordinary sacrifice, a small team of directors and camera operators chronicled life in the midst of the 76-day-long Wuhan lockdown between February and April. They were subjected to the same working and living conditions as the medical teams whose grueling daily work was their subject, confined within uncomfortable protective clothing while stuck inside grim, dimly lit hospital corridors, all under a smoggy Chinese urban sky.

It’s such circumstances that put our experiences viewing films and consuming any type of media content into vivid perspective. What a service artists provide for their audiences, churning substance out of their creativity for the consumption of a curated community, often only to be met with scorn and derision. 76 Days feels like a film beyond reproach, something that could only be criticized by the most stone-hearted contrarian, though it’s so well-intentioned and well-made as to warrant no reproach anyway. Knowing the lengths to which these filmmakers went, one understands that the scale of their sacrifice was so much greater than simply mining their creativity for our enjoyment. They risked their lives for our education, for the actual, tangible betterment of the world.

As an informative document, 76 Days is admittedly lacking in detail, though there’s been plenty of space dedicated to the scientific specifics in the media. Lead director Wu Hao instead orchestrated a film that would capture the lived reality of hospital staff and patients during a pandemic. Staff are doggedly resilient, displaying a level of strength that’s so affecting given their situations it almost becomes tiring to witness — imagine how they’re feeling! Patients are mostly either too well for their mental good or too unwell for their physical good, and neither condition makes staff’s lives much easier. Wu and his codirectors cover a range of real scenarios: there are those whose illness wanes and who’ll eventually be discharged, those who’ll only deteriorate, those left behind, those taking care of disinfecting and returning the deceased’s property to their families, those undergoing other necessary medical procedures mid-pandemic. There are those, then, unseen, the vast majority in a city of 11 million, doors and windows locked shut for over 10 weeks. Their sacrifice, on the whole, was the slightest. Their example was one the rest of us ought only to feel shame for failing to match.

Of course, Wuhan is a Chinese city, and there’s no other country quite like China. Occasionally, casual little cultural observations can be made, noting the different customs and expectations between the society depicted herein and whichever society is occupied by the viewer. What’s most striking is seeing the strictness of the Chinese lockdown in (in)action and to consider that a country modeled off a political ideology where the needs of the many are put ahead of the needs of the individual, no matter how vulnerable, has so successfully rallied together to protect its most vulnerable. One is reminded that the values of Western individualism did not initially intend to provide for the individual liberty of all so much as to care for every single individual. 76 Days shows precisely what it means to take that care, to value each other person’s life as highly as one’s own.

This is a remarkable film, one that stakes a compelling claim as the definitive Covid-19 film. It will surely emerge, whether sooner or later, as one of 2020’s most important works of art, an invaluable document not of what happened nor why, but of how it happened, what it felt like for those most affected, indeed at what we know now was only the beginning of a modern global crisis of unprecedented scale. As Wuhan chimes its bells and beeps its car horns to commemorate its dead, their city-wide lockdown reaching its end, the card on screen reads “April.” Over half a year later, we viewers know all too well that there’ll be countless more commemorations to come. 76 Days ends on an image of a hospital worker sorting through bag after bag of rigorously disinfected possessions, arranging them for collection. They’re all that remain of a life lost to a virus so contagious that those who come to collect them will never even see their departed’s body again. The sadness infused through this film is that of over a million such families worldwide and it’s almost unbearable.

A film about heroes whose faces we hardly see, battling an enemy even they can’t see, with a bracing emotional undercurrent that’s impossible to miss. So don’t miss it.
90 %
Masked Marvel
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