A documentary on the COVID-19 pandemic may seem a little premature since the entire world remains in the grip of it, however tight or loose that grip may be according to location. What would a documentary on the pandemic look like anyway at this point, and whose perspective(s) would it represent or privilege? Would its scope be expansive, moving from the local to the global and thus providing an overarching view of the virus’ development/migration, or would it be more critical and comparative while bringing in the politics of representation as part of its take on how the pandemic has been (mis)represented, (mis)handled, and even (mis)treated? There is, of course, no singular answer. In the years or decades to come, documentaries will opt for one approach, a combination thereof, and/or everything in between.
For now, though, enter 76 Days as an example of one approach to take towards representing the pandemic, particularly in its early days. Co-directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chan in his documentary debut, and a local Wuhan reporter who has chosen to be identified as “Anonymous,” 76 Days provides a very close and immersive look at the 76-day lockdown, from late January to early April 2020, from the perspective of four different Wuhan hospitals in China right at the moment of the outbreak.
With its opening sequence of a distraught daughter and hospital worker wanting to say goodbye to her recently deceased father, located in one of the rooms and eventually carried out of it in a body bag, but unable to due to the threat of infection, 76 Days makes clear its focus on human experiences outside of any political, cultural, and/or historical context. The film therefore does not seek to ask or answer any such related questions. Above all else, and paradoxically enough, it seeks to put an empathetic face and body to at least some of the health workers and patients on the frontlines of the pandemic in Wuhan. Consequently, there is the sense of a “job well done” at the film’s conclusion, but it is by no means self-congratulatory. With its careful editing of situations that unfold across the different sections of the hospital – from the aged, to pregnancies and deliveries, and the baby ward – 76 Days is a highly absorbing work that discovers stories of the strength of emotional bonds and contact in providing treatment, even through the thick layers of PPE and hazmat suits.
With the exception of moments wherein the social actor on view is clearly speaking to the person holding the camera or someone next to it, 76 Days maintains a veritable fly-on-the-wall stance to catch and/or find the multitude of stories that the health workers and patients alike represent, making no distinction as to which hospital any given scene is host. As such, while the film inserts occasional glimpses of the quiet of the streets, storefronts, and sidewalks outside of the hospitals, partly for contrast but also partly for a bit of respite from the hospitals’ constant bustle of bodies and movement, it remains within the hospitals as staunchly as the workforce; hence the scenes and images of a closed door and its handle that indicate the beginning and conclusion of the lockdown.
Following the aforementioned opening sequence, the beginning of the lockdown is visually marked by the chaos and calls for order inside the hospital as incoming patients clamour to get inside on one side of the doors while staff attempt to maintain order and efficiency on the other side of the doors, where the camera and crew are located. Once patients and health workers find themselves together, the stories take root, mainly in episodic form. One narrative thread concerns an ornery grandfather who also has dementia, initially wants to leave the hospital upon admission, and continually gets up from bed and wanders around the halls against policy. Like a one-man Greek chorus or even an unintentional parodic representative of the populace in trying to process what is happening in the city and with himself, he often refuses to sit idly by and complains that remaining at the hospital is like being in prison. Such moments with the grandfather are sprinkled throughout the film, like a visual motif, but also very much like a recurring sitcom character. Also episodic, quite sitcom-like, and parceled out in its unfolding throughout the film while more dramatic and highly emotional is the narrative thread of a couple who cannot be in the same room during the wife’s C-section delivery, reunites as wife and husband without masks, and waits anxiously for the first time they can be with their baby. While certainly more developed than any other situations observed in the film, presenting such narrative threads in fragments is to the film’s advantage in that they are made no more, no less important than any other moment.
In fact, some of the one-shot/one-scene moments captured on camera are just as powerful as the aforementioned narrative threads, such as the shot of a bracelet dangling from the wrist of a woman who has passed away while a health worker offscreen speaks of the need to remove and disinfect it to give to her family; the shot of a “Get Well Soon” hand glove balloon interwoven with tubing connected to a patient; an overhead shot of still another patient successfully peeling and segmenting a grapefruit with his hands and noting his success; two exhausted health workers seated and sleeping on a bench, however briefly; another health worker standing at a balcony, back to the camera, also getting a break from it all; and the box of ID cards and cellphones of the deceased, each in their own individual bags awaiting to be claimed by or given to surviving family members.
In turn, these one-shot/one-scene moments then sometimes turn into a more tangible thread, as in the case with health worker Yang Li near film’s end making call after call to families of the deceased and return the deceased’s items as mementos. Such a thread feeds into the broader theme of the emotional connective value of media in the face of strict isolation/quarantine protocol that also loosely develops in the course of the film.
76 Days is available to viewers in Southern California (excluding San Diego County) from October 22, 2020 at 12pm PT to October 25, 2020 at 11:59pm PT as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.