Watching 76 Days, the new documentary on the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan from the Chinese American filmmaker Hao Wu, feels a lot like reading poetry. Its stubborn refusal to offer larger context or even simple explanations of what is happening leaves the viewer with two paths: either a close line-by-line read of the material, picking apart every frame, or simply letting it wash over you in a sequence of deeply intimate but also strangely impersonal moments, from a son reprimanding his father on the phone for being a nuisance to the medics to health workers sterilizing the belongings of patients who recently died before giving them back to their families.
The title refers to the length of the lockdown in Wuhan, the city where the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated. This implies the film is about the lockdown itself, but it is not. The "fly on the wall"-style documentary shows vignettes from within the containment zone of a hospital in Wuhan, where the worst of the initial outbreak unfolded.
There is no reassuring voiceover or interviews to explain what is happening. There is no commentary, no conclusions. This is not a documentary with charts and numbers and trends. This is not a salacious exposé. It's not even the sort of personal story that dredges up a lifetime of anecdotes as it takes you meticulously through an average workday. Instead, we have a series of disconnected scenes showing doctors, patients, and ordinary Wuhan residents.
There are no answers, no real catharsis, and like poetry, the meaning the viewer finds in it likely says as much about the watcher as it does the creator. I'm sure it is possible to emerge from this documentary feeling triumphant at the sight of springtime Wuhan growing busy again, just as I am certain that some will see the litany of the dead uttered by a medic as she telephones surviving relatives to be a scathing indictment.
I hesitate to even call 76 Days informative. But the thing is, despite its lack of explanation, I do know absolutely what is happening. The pandemic has been with us for a whole year and counting. In that time, like so many of us, I have done no small amount of reading.
So as hospital workers discuss CT scans, I remember that before accurate PCR tests, the primary method of diagnosing COVID-19 was through black spots seen in lung scans, and they remain an important part of care. I wonder what is scribbled in doctor's scrawl on their hazmat suits, and then I remember the many articles I've read about medics personalizing their faceless uniforms with names and doodles. I notice there seem to be a lot of sick old men just before I remember COVID-19 is most severe among older men.
76 Days doesn't explain the symptoms of COVID-19, its progression, or its treatments. There is nothing on the uncertainty of the doctors or the abrupt decline of seemingly fine patients, nothing on medical breakthroughs or changing protocol, nothing on medics getting sick and themselves needing to quarantine. It gives no time to the minutiae or justification of lockdown.
Time and again, I find myself asking questions and realizing I already had the answer because I had read an article about it at some point in the last year.
There is a loose structure around scenes of admissions near the beginning and discharges near the end. We open in the dead of winter, at the height of lockdown; we end with spring and the city streets filling again with people. We open on teams of fully masked medics trying to cope with the desperate sick pounding on their door, only being processed into the hospital in small groups. We end with empty wards and the medics finally peeling off their layers of protective clothing.
It's easy for me to explain this to you after the fact, but in the midst of it all, I felt completely adrift, trying to recognize faces and names, trying to piece together fragments into stories. In the ever bright glow of the hospital lights, time just doesn't have meaning.
Despite frequent shots of clocks, 76 Days feels fundamentally unmoored in time. Things happen in chaotic bursts, great flurries of activity amid terse exchanges. Capturing this strange timelessness of the pandemic is one of the film's great strengths. It is a feeling I am achingly familiar with and many others have frequently described. I can feel it in my bones as I watch doors open and shut. An old man with dementia wanders corridors during what may or may not be the night. Lanterns become weathered over wide, empty streets. Unclaimed bicycles pile up in an alley. The calendar ticks on, and nothing changes until, all at once, things are different and spring is here.
76 Days feels almost restrained in its depiction of the sheer grueling, grinding work and the constant loss. Or at least, it doesn't dwell on narratives of selfless heroism or tortuous sacrifice. There is simply more work to be done, and it is done.
But little details still linger in my mind: the condensation on the inside of a pair of goggles; the smiling face drawn on the inflated gloves used to prop up breathing tubes; the half-hugging, half-restraining grip of a medic as a woman howls her grief at the sight of her father's body; the angry accusation of a desperate patient; the box of phones belonging to dead patients as one with particularly large buttons—probably belonging to someone older—rings and rings.
The word "witness" is one I fixate on. It is, I venture, what 76 Days offers—testimony. Snatches of time from that grueling blur of months, brief moments of kindness swaddled in rustling plastic. Doodles of cherry blossoms on the back of a medic's protective suit. A brief bit of banter about favorite foods and regional delicacies. A new mother finally getting to see her newborn daughter after quarantine and delighted that the child has inherited her double eyelids.
It does not and cannot offer you meaning in the suffering. It is too honest to do so. In the end, I am simply left with the knowledge: This happened. It is happening in the hospitals of Los Angeles and North Dakota and Tokyo right now. It is still happening everywhere.
And that's perhaps as much as one can ask for from a film.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement