76 Days (4 stars)

76 Days

Fascinating and surprisingly uplifting look at Wuhan's response to the Covid-19 pandemic

A documentary set in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic might not seem all that appealing right now, but don't write 76 Days off too quickly. This spellbinding film spreads its attention across four Wuhan hospitals in the early months of the outbreak; with its focus on the heroism of healthcare staff, it's ideally timed to coincide with a particularly difficult period in the UK's own battle with the disease, reminding us of the lifesaving, largely unseen actions of others, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Appositely, it is dedicated to frontline medical workers worldwide.

It takes us from the initial lockdown of a city of 11 million on Jan 23, 2020 – an act that at the time seemed unfathomably brutal – to its lifting less than three months later. Given the apparent efforts of the Chinese authorities to control the Covid narrative, the film boasts incredible access to the country's on-the-ground response.

76 Days is directed by established documentarian Hao Wu and Weixi Chen (a video reporter for Esquire China, who has worked on documentary shorts), with the third co-director – a Chinese reporter sent to cover the outbreak – wishing to remain anonymous. Two of the filmmakers risked their lives and suffered significant discomfort filming in the hospitals, while Wu collaborated with them online from the US, editing the footage together as he received it.

With full-body personal protective equipment everywhere and patients masked, entire faces are rarely seen and people are clearly passing away in far-from-ideal circumstances. Instead, the film conveys its humanity in small, affecting details – like the 31 unread texts on the phone of a deceased patient, and the 'get well soon' messages and smiley faces drawn on surgical gloves blown up like balloons.

Filmed in a fly-on-the-wall style, there are few to-camera moments and no narration or sense of which hospital we are in at any time, and just two staff are identified, and yet the film feels predominantly coherent. It returns to several of the same patients, including a couple painfully separated from their daughter at birth. There's a touch of humour to the scenes featuring an elderly fisherman, causing the staff no end of bother, and to those involving a couple who are placed on different wards, with the wife increasingly desperate to see her husband; as he's wheeled away for a procedure, she seizes the opportunity to approach him in a corridor – 'Go away' he bluntly tells her.

During the making of the film, Wu found himself encouraged by 'ample evidence of human tenacity and kindness.' And by keeping things closely focused on what seem like tremendously professional and organised medical teams under dire pressure, 76 Days feels surprisingly hopeful, especially as things are brought increasingly under control.

Available to watch on demand from Fri 22 Jan.

76 Days

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • US / China
  • 1h 33min
  • Directed by: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen