TIFF documentary 76 Days provides unprecedented entry into Wuhan’s Covid-19 story


Given the year, it may be fitting that the first documentary feature examining the coronavirus crisis is set in the city that is synonymous with its emergence – Wuhan. The 93-minute film, which has footage of the chaos and challenges faced within the Chinese city as the unknown virus wreaked havoc, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF.

And given the information management Beijing has put in place to conceal its failure to warn the world of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, its creators have requested first viewers 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.” As its production notes state: “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 spans the period from January 23 to April 8, the extent of the lockdown in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in the Hubei province of China, after which the virus was initially named. As doctors, nurses and paramedics strive to control the stream of patients pouring into hospitals, the refrain from them is “Don’t panic.” It starts with the wailing of a woman, seeking to see her dead father’s corpse once last time, and focuses on a separate box created as the body count rises: ID Cards and Phones of the Dead.

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The film was the idea of New York-based Hao Wu, who spent the Chinese New Year holiday in Shanghai as “a panic was setting in all over China.” As Hao said, “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 were getting sick and dying too. The country was angry. I was angry.”

He collaborated with two China-based reporters Weixi Chen and a second just identified as Anonymous, “to avoid attracting attention.” As they filmed in four different hospitals and exchanged rushes with Hao online, the film came together, as one of human suffering and heroism of medical personnel amid the scale of the tragedy unfolding around them in a dystopian setting.

The directors, Hao said “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.” Like medical personnel they donned personal protective equipment that resembled space suits, as they entered the contamination zone. At one point, fearing for their own safety as China cracked down on non-official information being released, his co-directors quit the project. However, after the lockdown was lifted, they were persuaded to return to complete a documentary that TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey described as “urgent, powerful filmmaking.”

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