Even as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, documentarians are hard at work, practically in real time, chronicling how it’s all playing out. Alex Gibney already released Totally Under Control, a film that devastates as it breaks down failure after failure of the now-lame Trump Administration to respond to the crisis and keep Americans safe. “Frontline,” the stalwart PBS documentary series, has dedicated a full feature-length episode to the spreading of the virus since it was discovered in early 2020. More essential—and at times more terrifying—than any of them is 76 Days, a harrowing and heartbreaking on-the-ground account from the epicenter of the earliest days of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Directed by Weixi Chen and Hao Wu, the film takes its title from the length of time that city spent in total lockdown in an effort to contain the virus’s spread.
It’s rare (and perhaps impossible) to both highly recommend seeing a film as important as this one and caution against it if your experience of the pandemic includes close encounters with the virus and its traumatic effects. With stunning access inside a hospital treating those first hit with the novel virus, Chen and Wu create a narrative that might not seem real if we weren’t still living through it. From the first scenes, it’s all intense drama and emotions on overdrive. The doctors and nurses suited in PPE from head to toe, as if going into battle or a nuclear zone. The terrified civilians packed into small waiting rooms, pounding on the door, begging to be let in for care and attention. The nurses in tears as they push against the door from the other side to keep the possibly infected from overwhelming their resources. The elderly gentleman, confused and scared, insisting that he’s fine to go home, his mask slipping off his face again and again and a nurse gently asking him to put it back on again and again.
Though the majority of the film takes place inside the hospital, following the heroic front-line workers and their most acute cases, the filmmakers venture out to the city (Wuhan’s population is approximately 11 million, larger than New York City by a few million) to document what a complete lockdown looks like, too. Signs on the street implore families to stay home for their own safety. City workers in full PPE set up rationing tables in residential neighborhoods where civilians are passed rations through a fence, from an appropriately safe distance. The streets are empty, shops boarded up, only sporadic citizens out on an errand or a police officer here and there to keep an eye out for anyone out against the shutdown orders. Nearby, a young couple calls the hospital about picking up their newborn daughter; they’ve finished their quarantine in their small city apartment and are ready to bring her safely home, with the hospital’s green light.
The early months of the pandemic were chaotic enough in the U.S., with a response (or lack thereof) that was (and continues to be, honestly) nothing short of shameful. Add to that the fear-mongering and blame-gaming from the White House, pointing fingers rather than building solutions and using racist language to describe the virus and gin up division, and it’s no wonder a not-too-small portion of the country still believes misinformation about the pandemic even now. In that way, what is particularly remarkable about 76 Days, beyond its stellar reporting on the events as they unfolded, is how it succeeds in humanizing the toll the virus took on this city on the other side of the world. From healthcare workers with encouraging messages drawn in sharpie on their scrubs to city officials sorting out how to manage the realities of a rising death toll to the young parents desperately eager to have their baby home with them, it’s impossible to watch and not be moved by their struggles, but also by their resolve and resilience.
Many years from now, the pandemic of 2020 will be studied as a moment in global history much the way the same circumstances of 1918 are now. A film like 76 Days will be held up as one of the must-watch documents necessary to understanding this moment. Lucky for us, we don’t have to wait until then to appreciate it.
76 Days is now streaming on virtual cinemas, including via Music Box Theatre. A portion of your rental goes to support the theatre while it’s closed.