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.