I want to say goodbye for the last time.
Despite all the conjecture about Wuhan being some backwoods Chinese town where people eat bats, reality reveals that it’s the capital and largest city of the Hubei Province. More than that, it’s also the ninth most populated city in the entire nation. Shutting it down on January 23, 2020 wasn’t therefore easily done, but it was an absolute necessity to try and combat the COVID-19 outbreak that was well on its way to becoming uncontrollable. People were dying. Hospitals were being overrun. And yet United States president Donald Trump simply sat back and watched it happen, folded his arms, and declared we shouldn’t have to worry. By the time Wuhan lifted its lockdown order, we were barely a month into our own. The numbers here are higher today.
What did disingenuous American partisan hacks do during that time? They went to hospitals in low populated towns to photograph and film empty emergency rooms, stoking one of the radical right’s latest disinformation efforts to dissolve the very barrier between fact and fiction. Not only did Wuhan mobilize quicker (relatively speaking as well as because the city was the pandemic’s epicenter), but they would blare radio alerts on the streets to specifically prevent similar attempts at proliferating lies solely meant to minimize the danger of what was happening. Director Hao Wu and journalists Weixi Chen and “Anonymous” went one step further by risking their lives to document the lockdown’s harrowing 76 Days from inside its worst hot zones. Filming in four different hospitals, they sought the uncensored truth.
That’s what they provide during a ninety-minute cinéma vérité documentary that provides as much heartache as it does hope. For every scene of nameless souls threatening to breakdown the door while doctors taped up in plastic from head-to-toe try and keep the intake process orderly is one of a crying patient thanking the person caring for (and, in plenty of cases, saving) them with prayers of gratitude. Everyone on-screen is living on the razor thin line separating life and death in this way as survival instincts come into conflict with a fight for the greater good. Those feeling better want to know why they can’t go home. Those feeling worse plead to have a family member stay with them. But that’s not how quarantines work. Rules are critical.
The filmmakers focus on a handful of characters throughout to truly capture a sense of the insane logistics and uncertainty behind operating in such unfathomable circumstances. There’s the ICU head painstakingly collecting and sanitizing every patient’s phone and ID card to either give back to them upon release or package with their death certificate for next of kin. There’s the dementia-riddled great-grandpa who applauds the staff during the day and tries to escape them during the night. There’s a young couple waiting to take their newborn daughter home after an emergency C-section to remove her from the mother’s infected body. And there’s the health worker comforting those who ask him to escort them out and those who sadly never wake-up. It’s a lot to take in.
We must bear witness, though. Those of us who have thus far been lucky enough to avoid COVID-19 from affecting them personally and those who’ve seen it decimate the population of their dinner table need to watch in order to remember who the real heroes are (frontline medical staff, journalists, and sanitation workers) as well as our role in helping them succeed. The countdown clocks and relatable airing of frustrations ensure that we don’t forget the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing, and self-quarantining to our collective salvation. Because without taking personal responsibility for our own movements and interactions, these hospitals would become a never-stopping revolving door rather than gradually emptying buildings serving to mark our return to some semblance of normalcy in the aftermath. Whatever that might be.
Things begin with a woman screaming to say goodbye to her father as he’s wheeled out on a gurney before someone reminds her to keep her distance because her shift tomorrow is too important to sacrifice and never lets up on its depiction of our collective raw emotions. That we find some humor in the good times (that aforementioned great-grandfather’s constant appearance in places he shouldn’t be couldn’t have been scripted better) allows for the deep despair conjured by the bad to not completely overwhelm us. It will still hit you like a ton of bricks, but the spiral only drops so far before a light can pull us back up with as much promise for the future as can be mustered within such a nightmarishly ongoing present.
courtesy of TIFF