When 76 Days opens, it plunges you straight into one of the most harrowing first few moments of a film you’ll see all year. A woman in a Wuhan hospital is screaming and wailing as her father – isolated from her – is gasping his last breaths. She’s now allowed in to see him and must be restrained by staff, all dressed – like she is – in full PPE. She can barely stand, sobbing that she’ll never see him again. If anything crystallises the horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic – and just how cruel this disease is on families – then it’s a scene like this.
The film is largely confined to the ICU at Wuhan Red Cross Hospital, following the near-to-exhaustion staff as they try to manage an unprecedented crisis. The title refers to the number of days the Chinese city where the pandemic began was kept in strict lockdown back in the early months of 2020; when the cameras do venture outside, the streets are empty – bar brave volunteers who are delivering food to confined residents, ferrying the sick to hospital or giving out rations.
Made by Chinese documentary film-maker Hao Wu, working with newcomer Weixi Chen and a camera operator called simply ‘Anonymous’, there is no attempt to talk to scientists or government officials. There are no trips to the wet markets where the virus supposedly began or even any context-providing narration. The phrase ‘Covid-19’ isn’t even mentioned until a closing caption, when we learn that on April 4, air-raid sirens sounded to mourn the dead, part of an initiative across all China. It shows the Chinese authorities in a remarkably competent and organised light.
Make no mistake, 76 Days is a gruelling watch, particularly coming off the back of 12 months of daily coronavirus updates on the news. But the filmmakers find great humanity and courage here among the frontline workers, some who see this as an opportunity to contribute to society in a time of great crisis. Small gestures – calling families of the deceased to return personal items, holding a dying patient’s hand – speak volumes. Whatever country you’re from, it’s a film that makes you appreciate your own health care professionals and the job they have been doing.
76 Days is available on demand from 22 January. For more details, click here.