Thursday 21 January 2021

Outbreak: "76 Days"

Almost exactly one year ago to the day - January 23, 2020 - Wuhan was locked down by Chinese authorities investigating the outbreak of a mysterious new respiratory disease spreading rapidly through the city's population. A small crew of filmmakers - led by Hao Wu, Weixi Chan and an anonymous third party - had, depending on your outlook, either the colossal or lousy fortune to be training their cameras on ICU staff at four of the city's hospitals as the lockdown took effect, earning themselves the frontline access BBC News has only been able to secure this past week, a full ten months after the first UK lockdown. The film stitched together from this documentary rapid-response team's efforts, 76 Days, offers a jolting, up-close-and-personal account of just what happens in such environments in such times of crisis. It opens hard, with a nurse having to be physically supported by her colleagues as she learns her father has become one of the pandemic's very first victims ("I want to hear him sing again"). As the streets empty outside, the wards fill up with new patients, only some of whom will survive this first wave. In a box behind the counter of the nurses' station, the disinfected phones of the deceased vibrate with messages from loved ones that will never be heard by their intended recipients. Inevitably, some of 76 Days is upsetting in the extreme. Yet it also proves unexpectedly funny, as when the camera sporadically alights on one cranky old puffin, who makes everybody's jobs 5% more fraught by roaming the wards as though this were a regular Thursday afternoon in Wuhan. (He, too, is not invulnerable, it transpires - and you find yourself sorely wanting him to hold out beyond the end credits.) And then there is the heroism of those medics, seen taping up one another's protective suits, holding phones to the ears of those on life support, and generally going about their work under hellish pressure. "You are all charging forwards, facing enemy fire," as one patient, wisened enough to have seen actual combat, frames it. Sometimes, amid this charge, they save a life, too.

For sheer immediacy and human drama, 76 Days won't be touched this week - and perhaps not for many weeks to come. I shed more tears watching this than I have at any other point during the pandemic, which I can only attribute to the quiet restraint displayed by everybody passing into these hospitals' red zones. What's interesting from a formal perspective is that this crew achieved this cathartic effect without access to many of the usual visual cues. They obviously had to observe strict social distancing as patients were hooked up to ventilators; but we also barely see a face that isn't hooded, masked and visored up. (Those that aren't fully provoke an immediate jab of panic.) One especially vivid takehome: how loud the doctors have to talk to make themselves heard through all these layers, and it hardly helps that the majority of their critical patients are of an age where their hearing is on the wane. Just as the doctors had to work out a response to Covid, so too the filmmakers improvise their own protocols: holding back allows them to emphasise body language (medical staff slumped over chairs during a mid-shift powernap, or performing yoga stretches in the corridors to get themselves going again), while occasional close-ups register a range of poignant details. We see the tears pooling in the eyes of a pregnant woman who's just been told her husband can't be present during her C-section (given the stress-heavy times, I feel dutybound to reassure you this strand works out just fine otherwise); we see the Covid-blackened fingernails of one old dear hooked up to a vent, and are reminded of a moment when everyone was looking out for telltale symptoms. What broke this viewer, though, were the surgical gloves being inflated and redeployed by nursing staff as makeshift (but sterile) Get Well Soon balloons. Talk about going the extra mile.

The surprise to some Western viewers - and, I suspect, to Western doctors most of all, should they ever again get 93 minutes off to watch a film - will be how calm these wards become in the wake of the initial outbreak. The title refers to the total length of time Wuhan was in lockdown, a span during which these doctors and health officials - the first anywhere in the world to be confronted by Covid-19 - worked out not just how to treat this virus, but how to beat it. (As things stand, China's total death count from Covid is 4,635. In total. That's China, remember.) The patients, clearly, played their part, sanitising, masking up, and finding some correlation between saving face and saving lives. When that old geezer's son phones him to impress upon him a need to be civil to his doctors, his line of argument is: don't be a disgrace to your beloved Communist Party. Such methods would have held little sway in the individualised West, but it's notable that the filmmakers caught no sight of Covid deniers or whiny mask refuseniks. And what they do show is that certain structures were set in place to ensure China's Covid curve was properly flattened, not just given a light massage before the doors of the Wuhan Wetherspoons were thrown open once more. The city's hotel room quarantine, complete with free food delivery, looks blissful; I can't see why Brits wouldn't willingly go along with any such system. (I mean, it'd get us out of the house, which is something nowadays.) By the end of these 76 days, Wuhan was in a far healthier place than it was in January 2020; its citizens even had the luxury of unfettered mourning, something currently unthinkable in the West, given the mindboggling daily death counts and overriding public-health restrictions. (Joe Biden immediately distinguished himself from his indifferent predecessor by inserting a moment's silence for the dead into his inauguration speech: is this the start of the process whereby Western nations finally confront their loss?) You'll doubtless have seen the footage of Wuhan residents celebrating en masse over the Christmas period; going by date, it took a year for that sliver of normality to become a possibility again. Will the UK be anywhere close to that by the time we get to March? If not - and 76 Days is a film that absolutely empowers us to ask this follow-up question - why not?

76 Days will be available to stream for free tomorrow and Saturday via Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and Dogwoof on Demand. Full details here.

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