“76 Days” captures the first 76 days of the lockdown right at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China. Back in January, when the virus was beginning to gather traction, Weixi Chen and Anonymous picked up a camera and began filming.
As journalists, they were able to gain unprecedented access into four hospitals in Wuhan, filming patients and doctors. Director and producer Hao Wu was meant to get on a plane, but as the virus spread around the world, flights were canceled and Wu directed remotely, virtually communicating with his on-the-field directors who sent him footage over the cloud.
Wu would take the rushes and edit them in his New York home and put his film together, taking viewers into the first coronavirus hot zone.
Wu talked about directing virtually and working with two directors who put their lives and careers at risk. “76 Days” is now available in virtual cinemas.
When did you decide that you were going to pick up a camera and start shooting this?
I was in New York, and my co-directors Anonymous and Weixi Chen had been filming since January. To this day, I’ve still not met them in person. We had one video call and that was right at the beginning. After that, we spent time collaborating over the cloud where they would send me rushes. That’s how we worked through this process — virtually.
What makes this so fascinating is the access we get into Wuhan and the hospitals which at the time was a coronavirus hotspot. What did you learn about the directors shooting inside those hot zones and making sure they stayed safe?
I really admire them for taking enormous personal health risks at the time. Back then, there was very little data about how transmissible and how dangerous the virus was. As you see in the film, the medical workers had to put layers of PPE’s and tape it all off when they went into the contamination zones. The directors did the same thing too. It was really uncomfortable as the air couldn’t get in. We had to limit bathroom breaks because once you went you couldn’t go back to the contamination area. After all, there was a daily quota on PPE gear, so it was really challenging when it came to filming those scenes, especially inside the hospital.
One director is credited as Anonymous, what was the reason behind that?
Access was complicated because, during the lockdown, only medical workers, patient reporters, and government-sanctioned TV crews could go inside the hospitals. Both of my directors were reporters, so that’s how they were able to get access.
Since they showed their ID’s, they weren’t being entirely discreet. One director is a legal reporter for Esquire, China. He’s an aspiring documentary filmmaker so he was happy to put his name to it.
With my other director, he has been working for a locally-owned state newspaper. He was afraid that if the government had any negative response to how the outbreak was portrayed, he could get into trouble.
A lot of Chinese internet users are in fact nationalists and increasingly so. They consider anything critical of the government, unpatriotic. He’s worried about those internet trolls more than anything else. He aspires to be a filmmaker and doesn’t want internet trolls to go after him and his employer because of his footage.
There are no talking heads. Instead, you have a doctor to patient moment and other similar discussions to drive the narrative. Where did you decide to keep it raw and emotional that way?
I reached out to over a dozen filmmakers for this. As soon as I saw their footage, I was shaken and moved to tears because it transports you to the frontline. It was so personal. Even now, we don’t have much visual evidence of how horrible COVID-19 is. That’s for privacy and hospitals fear liability.
I think, in the West, we think of the data and statistics, or the political debates. But for me, this was about the human face of COVID. It was about sharing personal stories and experiences.
We did film some footage with whistleblower doctors, as well as some of the dissidents, and even the families who wanted to sue the government, but it felt distracting.
I wanted people to go on the emotional journey.
Why did you decide to stay away from the political aspect, especially with the President making racist remarks at any given opportunity?
That was agonizing. There were times we wanted to go into investigative mode and convey our thinking. But I wanted to preserve the precious footage.
Looking back, most of the Chinese people think maybe the government did the right thing because life has gone back to normal. Deaths there are small compared to the size of the population. So which government handled it well and which one handled it wrong? I just feel it’s way too early because we are still living through it all.
I think we need to look back at it in two years to see who took the right approach. It needs to be well researched and balanced. I was reading “And the Band Played on” and that was so wonderful because it was so meticulously researched. So I feel to pass judgment now is still too early.