The first minutes of 76 Days are an intrusion into a moment so private, it practically begs the viewer to look away: A medical worker in a hazmat suit is dragged through the halls of a hospital in China, crying out for one last chance to say goodbye to her dead father, an early victim of COVID-19. Her co-workers, also in head-to-toe protective gear, are a terrifying sight. But they speak to her kindly, urging her to regain her composure because they need her to get back to work alongside them. The scene combines science-fiction spectacle with harrowing drama, and it’s both unwatchable and utterly compelling.
76 Days, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, is the first significant piece of cinema made about the coronavirus pandemic. The documentary focuses on four different hospitals in Wuhan, China, the city where the disease was first identified. The story brings the audience into the eerie, empty corridors of a locked-down building in a locked-down city and strings together abstract glimpses of the staff’s battle against a resilient and dangerous illness. But the movie is also fascinating simply because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end—a jarring contrast to America’s experience with COVID-19, which feels as though it will last forever.
The opening sequence of 76 Days—directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu, and an anonymous third filmmaker—is something of a test for the viewer. Though the documentary is never grisly and doesn’t fixate on the physical toll of the virus, it’s often so emotionally punishing that it’s hard to keep going. The early scenes, which have the atmosphere of a zombie movie, show hospital workers essentially barricading their doors against patients waiting outside in the freezing cold, in a desperate effort to stop the spread of infection. The footage isn’t supplemented by voiceovers or talking heads, intentionally lending a sense of barely controlled chaos to the proceedings.
If 76 Days has a narrative, it’s about order being slowly and painfully reborn out of total confusion, of humanity reasserting itself in the face of an uncompassionate and destructive disease. The main characters are health-care workers, nurses and doctors who flit from patient to patient to try to stem a tide of death. It’s often difficult to distinguish between them in their hazmat suits. But, by the film’s end, their idiosyncrasies have started to emerge—patterns of speech, bedside manner—as the crisis before them shifts from constant triage to disease management.
It is no spoiler to say that in 76 Days, a calmer reality eventually surfaces. Frightening situations, such as when a woman gives birth and has to be separated from her baby because she has COVID-19, find happy resolutions. Not everyone who is wheeled into a hospital dies. Though the film wasn’t sanctioned by the Chinese government, it isn’t critical or investigative in nature; the documentary serves more as a testament to the day-to-day efforts of hospital staff and doesn’t dig into China’s initial downplaying of the disease. Still, the camerawork is surreptitious in a way that’s sinister and thrilling; it plays like a covert visual dispatch from a quarantined city that Americans could only read about in the early months of the pandemic.
The deep strangeness of 76 Days is that it has a conclusion at all; the documentary shows things getting better, people recovering, and the worst of the disease beginning to dissipate. I live in New York City, where stay-at-home orders and social distancing have flattened the curve, and life on the streets looks like some version of normal, even if everyone’s wearing masks. But America’s coronavirus narrative isn’t remotely close to complete, given that the United States’ daily infection numbers are beginning to tick up yet again, despite having never dipped below the tens of thousands since late March. The Wuhan setting means that 76 Days is a necessarily contained tale, and the measures under which the city was sealed up are more severe than what many Americans could imagine, yet it’s a relief to see those efforts actually work.
76 Days is unvarnished and raw, a first draft of a history that’s still being written. The film is currently awaiting acquisition by a U.S. distributor, but once its release is announced, it’ll be required viewing—both because the story is a tribute to the heroic efforts of the workers it follows and because of its unsparing brutality. Of the many political narratives around COVID-19, one that’s particularly pervasive in American discourse is that the virus isn’t that dangerous or deadly to most people, which is a myth. 76 Days is a stark snapshot of reality, set in spaces where everyone is either sick from the disease or fighting to cure it. The documentary forms just one piece of a much larger picture, but it’s a vital fragment nonetheless.