On 23rd January 2020, China locked down Wuhan - a city of 11 million people - to combat the outbreak of Covid 19. The world watched in shock and disbelief as the city became eerily quiet - no cars on the roads, no people on the streets. The lockdown lasted for 76 days.
76 Days is also the title of a documentary by directors Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous (a local photo journalist in Wuhan who wishes to remain anonymous to protect his identity). Their incredible film places us on the frontline with doctors and nurses in a hospital at the centre of the pandemic.
From its opening seconds, 76 Days is a tough watch. A woman begs in vain to be allowed to say goodbye to her dying father. “I want to say goodbye for the last time,” she cries as his body is taken away. In incredibly distressing scenes, we witness her raw and overwhelming grief.
These and many other moments in 76 Days would not feel out of place in a horror movie. Of course, in the days since January 2020, we have heard many similar stories and seen many similar images. 76 Days proves that they have lost none of their devastating power.
76 Days is an important and valuable historic record of what happened during the early days of Covid 19 in a country that is often reluctant to share such information. The documentary is also a superb piece of filmmaking.
There is no narration, there are no talking heads. As a result, thanks to stunning handheld camerawork, we are utterly immersed in events as they unfold. We run up and down corridors with medical staff, we traverse stairways and move in and out of wards.
And then the camera stops and we see a beautifully composed shot that looks like a photograph. Here is the influence of Anonymous who, until the pandemic struck, worked as a still photographer. In one scene, the camera focuses on the locked door of a waiting room full of patients who are ill, angry and scared.
The image of that door - blue with a utilitarian silver handle - is haunting.
In the midst of this portrait of grief, exhaustion and despair, there is also hope and humanity. 76 Days highlights some truly heartwarming moments. A couple looks forward to the arrival of their first child, doctors and nurses take the time to reassure frightened patients.
The indomitable human spirit is in evidence throughout. Medical staff embellish their plastic anti-contamination suits with fun images and humorous messages. Mobile phone videos are used to connect loved ones. A doctor takes the time to draw a happy face on a latex glove that he has blown up like a balloon.
In moving and intimate scenes, we see Covid 19 patients as individuals and not just numbers. We witness the experiences of an elderly man with dementia, a frail woman in the ICU and a husband and wife separated by a hospital corridor and an unforgiving virus.
The film also follows two medical professionals, Dr Tian Dingyuan and head ICU nurse, Yang Li. Dr Tian Dingyuan is incredibly kind. In one moving scene, he holds the hand of a eldery woman and tells her that, while she is in hospital, “we are your family”. In another, he runs to say goodbye to a patient who has finally been discharged from hospital.
Meanwhile, Yang Li, honours those who have died by meticulously cleaning the belongings they have left behind - identity cards, mobile phones (that still ring and register missed messages), car keys and bracelets - keeping them safe in sterile plastic bags before returning them to grieving relatives.
While 76 Days is an important record of Covid 19, it is these powerful moments of compassion that linger.