’76 Days’ Movie Review: An Objective Coronavirus Documentary [AFI Fest]

After six months of lockdown and nonstop coronavirus (COVID-19) coverage, the last thing many people probably want to do is watch a movie about the coronavirus. And yet, thanks to fast-working filmmakers, we’re starting to see multiple documentaries about the pandemic. Hulu has Totally Under Control, and 76 Days premiered at AFI Fest. 

76 Days patient and doctors
Doctors and patient | MTV Documentary Films

The people 76 Days would be most likely to impact are the ones who question the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, those are also probably the least likely to watch a movie like 76 Days. Those following the pandemic will be the best judges for how much they can take. 76 Days really puts you on the front lines of the beginning of the pandemic in Wuhan, China. 

These ‘76 Days’ weren’t so long ago

When China locked down the city of Wuhan for 76 days beginning Jan. 23, filmmakers Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous followed doctors at a hospital in the city. The style is completely fly on the wall. There’s no narrator, no cutaway to background information. You just spend 76 days in the Wuhan hospital, compressed to 90 minutes. 

76 Days nurses
Nurses exhausted | MTV Documentary Films

You watch the doctors suit up and scrub down. You see patient consultation where they ask about any other potentially infected family members. 76 Days shows doctors holding phones up to patients so family members can talk to them. The film identifies Yang Li, but the name only identifies a white suit, as if we could see Dr. Yang under all that PPE. As the lockdown goes on, they start writing different things on each other’s uniforms.

An emotional ‘76 Days’

Any fictional medical drama is inherently emotional because it’s life and death, let alone a documentary about actual people facing life or death. It’s harrowing to watch the doctors keep a crying woman away from her dying father. In 76 Days, you are watching real people die of COVID-19.

Doctors have to treat a baby as well. You watch them disinfect personal belongings and keep them in bags. Towards the end, they have to unpack and disinfect the belongings of the deceased to give them back to their families. 

A small sense of the real suffering due to coronavirus

In the beginning, the doctors have to barricade the doors because too many patients want immediate treatment. They get to them all, but they have to pace them. You’ve got to feel for the patients waiting interminably for days. What can the hospital do? They’re contagious, there’s no cure, they can treat it but it’s a lot of waiting. The doctors rely on family members on the phone to talk their family down and help the doctors control them for treatment. 

Coronavirus documentary 76 Days
Medical workers limit patients in Wuhan, China | MTV Documentary Films

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Were these cameramen in full PPE suits too? If those were only for the doctors, then the filmmakers were risking even greater exposure just to document this. 76 Days shows the suffering of patients with COVID-19 and the pressure it puts on the hospital and their families. 

Wuhan was the hot zone for this pandemic, but extrapolate these 76 days to every hospital around the world for the last year. It’s remarkable to have such an unfiltered look inside the crisis response. If it doesn’t convince people of the severity of the pandemic, at least it shows how doctors manage such an extreme crisis and maintain compassion.