TIFF 2020

76 Days review – eerie look at the start of the pandemic

This brave chronicle of four Wuhan hospitals battling the first cases of COVID-19 makes for bleak but essential viewing

In the press notes for 76 Days, a new documentary made with unprecedented access to four hospitals in the first Central Chinese city affected by the coronavirus pandemic (and the first to lock down), there is an ominous warning to critics. After months of editing and correspondence with his two co-directors (one of whom is anonymous), producers still feared “government interference” in the event that writers discussed specific details such as the identity of health workers and the location of hospitals in the film.

Amid those fears of censorship, 76 Days is some achievement. Amid the clinical threats to vast swathes of the world population more than six months after the virus first emerged, the film is braver still.

Footage from two Wuhan videographers covering the first stages of the outbreak in February is the basis for the entire film, which is even more sparing in big picture analysis than a daily TV news report. 76 Days is no more than an unflinching insight into the experiences of health workers and patients fighting a sickness on which we still have scant information. It takes its title from the ten-week window in which the city closed all of its public spaces, an unnerving preview of what much of the world would go through in the ensuing months. For that reason, its sheer topicality is eerie – and deeply compelling. You won’t find a documentary more grounded in the events of today than this.

Unfortunately, you won’t find one much bleaker, either. The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly enabled flashes of inspiration and generosity, be that heroic crowdfunding efforts or communities coming together in the face of stark new challenges. The footage from Weixi Chen and Anonymous has no time for such stories, instead laying out the scale of the destruction wrought by the virus on patients old and young, male and female, vulnerable and persistent. This is no study of the human spirit thriving in the face of insurmountable odds; it’s a chronicle of the first days of a coming dystopia.

76 Days was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2020.

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