A version of this story about “76 Days” first appeared in the Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
“76 Days” chronicles the first seven weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic from on the ground and in the hospitals of Wuhan. It is a collaboration between Chinese-born, American-based director Hao Wu and two Chinese filmmakers, Weixi Chen and one who wishes to remain anonymous.
When you went to China at the end of January to visit your family, were you surprised at what you found?
HAO WU: Yeah, absolutely. I was supposed to fly to Shanghai on Jan. 23 with my partner and our kids to see my parents for the Chinese holiday. That was the day it was put on lockdown, and we learned about the lockdown 24 hours before my flight. In the end, I flew to Shanghai by myself.
The whole experience was shocking to me — first of all, just seeing Shanghai completely shut down voluntarily. It was China’s largest family holiday, and no families were visiting each other. And there were a lot of personal emotions mixed in — confusion, anger about how the government could have mismanaged it, and fear that my parents, who both have late-stage cancer, might not be able to see their grandkids again.
In my filmmaking, I tend to focus on character-driven stories. I intentionally shy away from news-driven topics because a lot of times, I don’t know what else I can bring in. So even when I was in Shanghai, I wasn’t thinking about making a film because I knew somebody else probably was planning to make it or was already filming. But when I came back to New York and MTV asked me if I would be interested, I jumped at it because the story has become very personal to me.
When you came back to the U.S. from China, was the travel ban in effect yet?
I came back around Feb. 1, and some airlines were canceling flights voluntarily, but Trump hadn’t implemented the travel ban yet. And coming back to New York was weird because nobody was checking temperatures, it was like the airport hadn’t changed at all. It was truly bizarre.
When MTV asked you do to the film, did you go back to China?
What I did first was to reach out to filmmakers who were already filming on the ground, who I could potentially collaborate with. And I really wanted to go back, so the second thing I did was to reach out to a lot of my friends in China, trying to figure out that if I fly back to Shanghai, how could I smuggle myself into Wuhan? There was no flight, no train, no buses going there. And once you’re in Wuhan, there’s no place for you to stay because all the hotels shut down. I made a really comprehensive plan to smuggle myself on supply trucks, and then some friends there arranged for me to stay at one of the few hotels that were open to take medical teams.
But by the time I finished making all the plans, it was pretty obvious that the virus was coming to the U.S. I wasn’t sure how big a scope this film could cover, but I was thinking maybe I should stay in the U.S. to try to contrast and compare New York’s response and Wuhan’s response.
And once I decided that I would stay in New York, I had already found my co-directors. Looking at their footage, it was pretty spectacular. So all I needed to do was to have continuing discussion with them, because it’s so chaotic on the front line. They were making some great choices already on the ground, so I wasn’t sure how much I could add.
You said you usually do character-driven stories — and I feel like this one, even though it’s about a huge worldwide event, does very much focus on the characters. Even if their faces are hidden behind masks, we come to come to know them as people.
Exactly. Thanks for pointing that out. When I was editing the film, my grandpa passed away and I felt tremendous guilt. I knew my parents were really scared in China, and I couldn’t be there to comfort them. And for a period of time, my partner and our kids went down to Atlanta. I felt very alone and vulnerable, and I guess I really wanted to highlight the person-to-person connection.
Doing the editing, I thought about making the story more political and more investigative, using archival clips and social media footage. To make it more like a comprehensive retelling of what happened. But in the end, because of what I was going through personally, and also because the observational aspect of the footage that was being shot in Wuhan by my co-directors was so strong, I decided to take away anything extraneous rather than trying to show the background. I just wanted to focus on the human moments.
You’re doing a real balancing act in terms of tone — because of the subject matter, it would be very easy for the movie to sink into the despair of the moment. And yet you find moments of hope and even humor.
When I construct a narrative, I don’t want to stay with one tone. So there’s humor, which I start introducing one-third of the way into the film. It’s always a mixture. It’s always going to be like a symphony. There’s two themes, right? The sad, sad, horror theme, as well as the home and humor theme.
I imagine that when you were working on this, you weren’t thinking that at the end of 2020 we’d still be in the throes of this. It’s not so much a story from the past as it is a story about what we’re still going through.
Yeah. I mean, it fuses both. At least for Chinese people, it was such a traumatic, emotional and traumatic experience for the entire country. Now China is back to normal. So for Chinese people, it feels so long ago — but in the rest of the world, especially in America, it feels really present.
We have never come out of the first wave. And as evidenced by this year’s election result, half the country is still party to Trump’s narrative that he had things under control or COVID is a hoax. It’s bizarre to me.