The 76 day lockdown in Wuhan, China, beginning on Jan. 23, was highly covered by new cycles around the world as COVID-19 spread around the word. Now the first feature documentary on the pandemic, titled 76 Days, has premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), showcasing human stories as frontline medical professionals and patients battle the virus.
One of three directors, Hao Wu, told Yahoo Canada he had a personal reason to explore this story. The filmmaker had planned on taking his children to China in early 2020 so his parents could spend time with their grandchildren, something that wasn’t able to happen with the pandemic.
“I'm still not sure when my parents will ever [be able] to see their grandchildren again,” Wu said.
The New York City-based filmmaker’s grandfather also passed away in early March and Wu wasn’t able to see him because of COVID-19 travel restrictions in China.
76 Days takes place in a local hospital with overcrowding and overwhelmed hospital workers in the first days of the virus. The film tells the story of patients at various stages of their illness being treated for the virus. One of the many heartbreaking moments is seeing hospital staff trying to return cell phone and personal items to the family of the deceased.
You also get the rare opportunity to see different patients in the hospital, like one with dementia who keeps trying to leave, while others are crying out to get information on where family members are, not knowing if they are in a hospital or elsewhere trying to fight off COVID-19.
Wu’s two other co-directors had been shooting footage in Wuhan already when he saw their video and was impacted by their work.
“It was so intimate and raw and emotional,” he said.
His two co-directors were wearing the same personal protective equipment (PPE) as the healthcare workers, overalls, mask, shield and goggles, but Wu said he has “huge admiration” for them “putting their own health at risk.”
“All I could do is make sure they're being careful, to remind them to be careful,” Wu said.
In late March, there was a brief moment when Wu’s two co-directors didn’t want to work on the film anymore as tensions between the U.S. and China rose to new heights and Wu had to use the film’s rough cut to convince them to work on the project.
‘We all have to cling on to hope to survive this’
It may seem like an unlikely situation to focus on human stories based on people you can’t really distinguish from each other because of the PPE, but the narrative is so compelling it pushes through in a way that makes you still feel connected to each and every one of these individuals working so hard to keep people safe and healthy.
“Even though it's not ideal, it will be hard visually to remember every character’s face, but...each story was so unique and emotionally resonant, so I was hoping viewers will be able to just like latch on to the story,” Wu said.
76 Days may be one specific view of Wuhan but while Wu was editing he saw the story in the more micro details rather than the macro environment of COVID-19 in China and the rest of the world.
“The details can really show the humanity in the story,” he said. “That's why I didn't do a beat-by-beat breakdown of the timeline of the outbreak, or the lockdown in Wuhan.
“I didn't include any news clips to remind the viewers what's happening in the rest of the world while Wuhan was locked down, I didn't include any talking heads commenting on what went right or wrong during Wuhan’s lockdown. I didn't do any of that because I just want people to focus on the human stories, hopefully that will make the film live longer as well.”
With Wu in New York during the filming process, he said that the constant COVID-19 news cycle made him “toon out,” particularly when there is still so much unknown information about the virus.
“I was spending a lot of time while I was editing the film reading about the past pandemics...I read a lot about how human beings reacted to that,” he explained. “Reading that and also looking at the footage made me realize, I just want to focus on the human stories because that's the only thing that will survive.”
Wu admits that this approach in 76 Days may not move the audience from a “news value perspective” compared to some other films that will likely come out later about COVID-19, but he’s happy with the angle the filmmakers chose to go with.
“My personal hope is that people can see...how similar we still are, especially during this pandemic,” he said. “We all have our fear and despair, heartbreak, pain but there's also hope. We all have to cling on to hope to survive this.”
“I want people to be able to see how the Wuhan lockdown experience, even though it was dramatic, even though it was [very extreme] from the daily COVID-19 experience in many parts of the developed world that we're living through...the emotions are similar.”
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) takes place from Sept. 10 to Sept. 19. Information on screenings and tickets at tiff.net.