Made covertly with two camera operators in different hospitals shooting the mayhem at ground zero of the intense COVID lockdown in Wuhan – on the surface, documentary 76 Days may tease some viewers with the prospect of an AAA expose of China’s brutal approach to the medical crisis. However, what you actually get is something altogether more humane.
“As filmmakers we are limited by the type of footage that we have access to,” says US based director Hao Wu, who would download the footage in New York that his co-directors, Weixi Chen and Anonymous were capturing in Wuhan. “We shot two whistleblower doctors, but we were only able to interview them. We didn’t get access to them until mid-March, when things had calmed down. We didn’t end up intercutting their interviews with the rest of the very emotional dramatic footage.
“A film is influenced by the filmmaker’s artistic intention or motivation. And my own personal motivation definitely has evolved. When I was in China, in Shanghai, and we were put under lockdown, my instinct was to make the film a lot more investigative, trying to understand what happened, what made this so bad. But later on, it comes back to an access issue. I couldn’t get anybody willing to speak on camera.
“Then, I was in New York in March and April when the pandemic hit New York,” he continues. “And early on, the narrative’s always about freedom of speech versus authoritarianism. But then once it comes to New York, it’s like, ‘Wait, it’s not that simple, is it?’ There’s more narrative. Why are certain countries failing in their response? Most countries failed, right? So why did they fail? I felt like if we want to put any political narrative on top of it, it’s just way too early. That’s why intentionally we moved away from it. We tried to make it a very apolitical universal story.
“I want to bring something new. I do feel like among the news narratives, a lot of times we forget about the more universal human stories; the human suffering and the good and the bad of humanity. Sometimes we lose track of that. With this film, our intention was to give the pandemic a more human face.”
To this day, Weixi Chen and Anonymous have not met. “They’re waiting for me to go back to China so that we can get together and have our celebration dinner,” says Hao Wu.
There’s plenty to celebrate too, with the film premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival [TIFF] and recently shortlisted for a Best Documentary nomination at the upcoming Oscars.
Hao Wu submitted a rough cut of the self-funded 76 Days to TIFF last year, and its selection opened up avenues to finance the post-production of the film, along with securing sales agent Dogwoof.
How much footage were you working with for the edit/scripting part of the process?
“I think it’s probably about 220 to 250 hours of footage, but really quickly we realised there’s certain footage that we could just eliminate. We decided before we started editing that we’re not going to include interviews because the observational footage was powerful enough. Also, we shot a lot more volunteers and people outside of hospitals. But then when we were watching the rushes, we realised ‘Hey, it’s kind of flat, there’s not much drama going on’. So, we just took all those stories out as well, because we knew other filmmakers were focusing on that part. We decided to focus on the type of unique footage access that we had.”
Can people in China see the film?
“We haven’t explored distribution there yet. But I think almost a month ago now, an online influencer saw some reporting about 76 Days being a contender for the Oscars. And then that influencer posted on Chinese social media. It started trending, pirated copies started popping up everywhere. So, I guess a lot of people have watched it in China. Overall, I think most people’s response has been appreciative of our efforts trying to document that part of history. But also, there have been internet trolls, very nationalistic internet trolls, like trolls everywhere… They don’t want you to watch the film. Just the very fact that this film was independently produced and distributed overseas without having gone through the censorship in China. That was enough for them to say that we are catering to the Western prejudice against China. I’ve been getting a lot of personal attacks from these trolls.”
Is there any danger for you in China?
“No, not for me personally. Once we decided we were making an apolitical film, I didn’t have that much concern. The reason we didn’t make the film as Chinese is that I really didn’t want to deal with the censors, who look at not only the political message, but also the details, how you portray the pandemic, whether it’s being triumphant enough, patriotic enough… I just simply didn’t want to deal with that.
“So, for me, I don’t have much concern because I’m based in the US. For my co-director Weixi Chan, he’s a reporter for Esquire China. He works for a relatively more commercial publication, and he’s an aspiring filmmaker himself. He doesn’t care if he loses his job. He can make independent documentaries. But for my co-director ‘Anonymous’, he’s a photo journalist for a state newspaper. For him, it is a big concern because he lives in Wuhan. This is the only job he’s ever had. He worries about losing his job. So that’s why he opted to remain anonymous.”
What measures did Weixi Chan and Anonymous take to protect themselves from COVID?
“They were wearing exactly the same thing you see medical workers wearing. Every day they’d have to go through this ritual of putting on multiple layers of PPE and tape up all the openings. It was physically extremely uncomfortable for them, and also early on they had this huge fear of contracting COVID. There was very little knowledge how transmissible it was. Chan actually had a high fever for a whole week. He quarantined in the hotel room. Later on, he went to the hospital, got tested, the test came back negative. They were very scared. But later on, it became more like a mental anguish, feeling helplessness, because they were filming people dying, people getting worse and they were not able to help.
“I had to sometimes encourage them to take a break. But also encourage them to go back because I kept on telling them that even though you feel like your presence there is not really helpful to anyone, it has meaning because we are documenting history.”
Will you work with your collaborators on other projects?
“We’re working on new projects already, but during COVID I feel so jealous of them because right now in China, they can travel anywhere. But I live in the US right now, it’s so hard to travel anywhere. As soon as I will be able to fly back to China, I want to start doing some new projects with them.”
And to have that celebratory dinner, of course.
76 Days premieres at AIDC on February 28, 2021