New Film on Wuhan at the Start of Pandemic

A screenshot from the new documentary ’76 Days.’


A new documentary shows some of what those in Wuhan, China, faced in the early days of the pandemic. 76 Days , funded in part by the Sundance Institute and the Ford Foundation, is being distributed by MTV Documentary Films. It will be released tomorrow in “50 virtual cinemas,” such as Film Forum in New York and Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles.

The footage for the film was shot in four Wuhan hospitals by Weixi Chen, a video reporter for Esquire China, and by a local reporter in Wuhan, who is listed as “Anonymous” in the credits, for fear of retribution by the Chinese government. They are also called co-directors of the film, but the director who edited their footage, and who is speaking on the film’s behalf, is Hao Wu, a Chinese-American known for his previous independent films on China, one of which won a Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest in 2018. He never went to Wuhan during the crisis.

The footage often has a nightmarish quality familiar from zombie movies. Medical workers wrapped completely in plastic gowns and face masks wrestle with a door, against an unruly crowd, outside the hospital ward, trying to get in for treatment. “We will get everyone in eventually,” a worker shrieks. “Please cooperate! … Too much chaos! Step back!”

Other powerful images include a woman in full hazmat gear, crying out to see her dead father (but is led away), and a young woman in “late-stage COVID” having a C-section. A grandmother with COVID, in a hospital bed, cannot even swallow but nods as her grandson gives her orders and encouragement by phone. “Your family cannot be here now,” the nurse holding the phone says. “We are your family.”

But the documentary is limited by semi-clandestine filming, the protective gear, and, I suspect, choices made not to show the worst of the suffering. Though the medical personnel are clearly meant to be a focus, no stories accrue to them. Only two can be distinguished, by occasionally-captioned names, and that has little to do with the overall story.

All the medical workers often run between assignments, fully garbed, and sleep sitting up in cheap chairs in the hallway. Their goggles stream with condensation, so even eyes cannot be seen. There are no individuals. The four hospitals are not differentiated, and there is no explanation of the personnel who come to help from other places in China, such as Shanghai and Nanjing. There is no sense of escalation or peak crisis in the film’s 76 days, starting January 23, 2020, so we do not know when that help was most needed, or when it began to arrive, and do not see the relief that must have been felt when it did. No officials are interviewed.

We get hints of the medical workers as a group by voices from the suits that are, in turn, sweet, loud, or frustrated by patients’ unintelligible dialects. At shift changes, anonymized by PPE, they write each other’s names in Chinese with Sharpies on the backs of their plastic gowns, draw cherry blossoms and cartoon caricatures, and write apparently funny sayings such as “Clay pot chicken I miss you.”

They rightfully understand themselves to be collective heroes. This is amplified by a head nurse shouting, “Comrades!” to her employees, and an old man praising his nurse for being like a soldier of the People’s Revolutionary Army fearlessly going into battle.

“It was our luck to encounter it,” one of the workers says of the virus.

But we never get to know an individual doctor or nurse, or learn what was at stake for them, beyond possible infection. Oddly, this parallels the success of more collective-minded societies, in contrast to the US, to get outbreaks under control. But the emotion of drama thrives on individuals.

We do get to see several patients, including the couple whose baby was delivered by C-section; a cantankerous great-grandfather; and the grandmother in the bed. There is some tension when the baby is not returned quickly to the couple, who are in quarantine at home, but she turns out to be the best eater and sleeper in the NICU, and is fat and in good health when she goes home. The cantankerous old man causes many frustrations on his ward, as he roams and tries to leave, but his agitation from longstanding dementia is the cause, and he appears not to suffer at all from COVID symptoms. The grandmother slips into a coma or sedation and simply slips away.

Only a dozen or more cell phones on a shelf represent the dead; one has 31 unread messages. A woman cleaning them and ID cards with disinfectant says, “Rich or poor, revered or despised—fate befalls all.”

The film shows a very few street shots, and some cautious food distribution in an alley, but little else of the city of 11 million, in deep crisis.

Director Hao Wu says in the press release that he “began researching how to expose the Chinese government’s wrongdoings, to reveal the source of this immense human tragedy that was spreading globally as a pandemic.” But he could get no cooperation, of course, and trapped in the US by travel bans, says, “I felt as if I was reliving the Wuhan stories all over again in America–underprepared government, lying or scientifically ignorant politicians, scared residents, and exhausted doctors and nurses with no protective equipment.” He speaks of “geo-political fights” and anti-Asian racism. “I read books about the Black Death, about the Spanish Flu, about the AIDS epidemic.” None of that made it into the film.

He says, “Even in the darkest hour in Wuhan there were [sic] ample evidence of human perseverance, of human kindness,” but he points to examples elsewhere: “the singalongs in Italy, the daily cheering for medics in New York, the self-organized volunteers in Madrid….”

In the end, other documentaries are probably more illustrative of the challenges and impact of this disease, though 76 Days does serve as an archive of scenes from the place thought to be the epicenter of the pandemic. April 8th was the last day of the original Wuhan lockdown. That was a long time ago, in 2020 terms, and there are more stories now.

In the US, there were 184,000 new cases of COVID on December 1. China has had fewer than 87,000 total cases. Yesterday the US had what the Times called “the single-worst daily death toll since the pandemic began”: 3,157 deaths. China has had a total of 4,634. Our story has been a need for leadership.


Read more by John Griswold here.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.