Producers: Hao We and Jean Tsien   Directors: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous   Screenplay: Hao Wu   Distributor: MTV Documentary Films

Grade: B+

From January 23 to April 8, 2020, the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province was under lockdown to fight the COVID-19 outbreak in the region, the opening salvo in what became a terrible global pandemic.  “76 Days” is a harrowing, poignant and inspiring portrait of how the staff at four of the city’s hospitals dealt with the crisis over that crucial time.  It is not an official or authorized film, but instead a deeply human one.

It is in virtually all respects a very limited portrait.  There are a few scenes outside the walls of the medical facilities where footage was shot on the fly by two cameramen, Weixi Chen and a person who prefers to remain anonymous.  (They sent the raw footage to Hao Wu in New York, and he edited it into the 93-minute version released in this country by MTV.)  Several sequences show ambulances streaking down nearly deserted streets, and a volunteer calls a woman he has been sent to transport for treatment to come down to his van.  The longest “outside” sequences focus on a couple whose newborn is being kept at the hospital for monitoring, as the mother suffered from the virus and recovered.  On a few occasions we see brief scenes on the street outside a hospital, or outside apartment buildings where community leaders preside over enforcement of the lockdown.  And toward the close we see groups assemble as the bells of the city toll to signal the end of the shelter-in-place directive.

The vast majority of the film, however, consists of footage shot within the hospitals as members of the staff, covered by their PPE, stretch themselves to the limit to deal with the ill.  An opening segment establishes the stress they are under: it follows a nurse as she rushes to see her father, who is at point of death.  She weeps and screams as she’s refused admittance to his room, and can only watch as his body is taken away.  We know that she will soon have to return to her work.

We also watch as men and women beg for admission to the hospital, only to be held for hours in a cold waiting area as staff desperately counts beds and allows then in one by one, apologizing for the delay as a necessary means of avoiding chaos. 

Some stories are followed throughout.  That of the young couple and their baby is one example.  Another involves an elderly man who wanders the halls looking to escape; repeatedly he is cautioned, gently but firmly, that he has to remain until he completes his quarantine period.  His presence is the closest thing the film offers to lightening the mood.

Not that the mood is unrelievedly grim.  One cannot but be struck by the dedication of the staff as they attend to patients, many of them elderly, in dire straits, exhibiting a sense of compassion as much as professionalism.  We watch as nurses carefully collect their phones and other bits of private property to return it to families whom they must tell that their relatives have not survived. 

The overall effect, though dealing with what is clearly a traumatic event for all concerned, is an uplifting picture of the resolution, courage and kindness with which the staff of these four hospitals responded to an almost unimaginable medical crisis.  It can’t help but remind us of the similar dedication that first responders in the United States are demonstrating as they deal with the pandemic spread in this country.  One only wishes that their efforts could have achieved a similar degree of success in less than three months.

But that involves a discussion of policies and political decisions that this film does not raise.  Nor does it address the issue of official Chinese actions in the early days of spread in Wuhan, which have raised serious questions about how the virus spread globally.  The focus of “76 Days” is on how human beings responded in one society to a medical emergency, exhibiting a degree of social uniformity and discipline that represent major elements in their culture and political system.  In that regard the film is not a political document, or even a medical one; it is simply an impressionistic portrait of how people treated one another at a time of enormous pain and stress—a portrait that is humane and deeply moving.