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Oscar-shortlisted documentary 76 Days captures the Wuhan view as COVID took hold

Oscar-shortlisted documentary 76 Days captures the Wuhan view as COVID took hold
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The film is, he says, “apolitical”. There’s no voiceover narration, no interviews, no attempt to point the finger of blame for cover-ups or systemic failures in the way the epidemic was handled in those early days. Instead, the camera is a seemingly dispassionate observer of what happened in four hospitals during the lockdown of the city of 11 million people from January 23 to April 8 last year.

“I’ve done films in the past that got me into bigger trouble,” says Wu. “My past film, People’s Republic of Desire, was about live-streaming internet celebrities but I couldn’t get it approved by the censors because they disliked the lifestyle and values they represent.”

Hao Wu, left, and Weixi Chen, two of the film’s three directors. 

Yet reading the Chinese Communist Party’s collective mind is no straightforward matter, he concedes. “I have no idea how they’re going to respond to the really authentic portrayal of the early chaos and panic in 76 Days, or the way it ends with a sense of collective grief. I don’t know where the line is, and some people cross that line and get detained or arrested. But I think, for now, what we did with this film is fine.”

Initially, the three directors didn’t know each other. The two in China were operating separately until mutual contacts introduced them to Wu, and to each other, and a collaboration was born.

More than 320 hours of footage has been rendered into a 90-minute film. But it wasn’t until Wu’s first cut last July that the shape of the film began to emerge.

At first, speaking to the whistleblower doctors and political dissenters in the community had seemed essential. “At the very beginning, the whole narrative was about freedom of speech versus pandemic control,” says Wu. But then the epidemic became a pandemic, and America and Italy and the UK all fumbled their responses, too, and Wu and his colleagues had to rethink what their film would be about.

At any rate, there were many other filmmakers pursuing the bigger picture, both in China and abroad. Their view from inside the hospital wards was unique – and inherently risky.

“For them to go inside a contamination zone, not knowing how dangerous the virus was in those early days, was nerve-wracking,” Wu says of his co-directors. Later it would be the mental anguish of watching people die that became most gruelling, and the sheer exhaustion of filming for so long.

Throughout the shoot, they had to wear full PPE. Even so, one of them contracted a fever within a week of arriving.

“He was just married. He said, ‘I don’t want to die yet’,” says Wu. He isolated in his hotel room until it passed and when he was finally able to get tested it came back negative. “But we don’t know if that was true because the early tests weren’t so accurate.”

Anyone expecting an excoriating takedown of the Party for its handling of the outbreak will perhaps be disappointed by 76 Days; what it offers instead is a story in which co-operation, dedication, care and family are the abiding attributes. Characters emerge – some difficult, some heroic, some amusing – and there’s hope as well as tragedy in the paths the filmmakers follow.

“If you disregard some of the politics, it’s the same human story everywhere,” says Wu. “So we decided to just focus on the Wuhan story – the universal Wuhan story.”

76 Days screens at 6.30pm on Sunday as part of the Australian International Documentary Conference. The AIDC is at ACMI in Melbourne and online from February 28 to March 3. Details: aidc.com.au

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