Review by Sean Boelman
The adjective “timely” gets thrown around a lot in film criticism (this critic will even admit to sometimes overusing it), but there hasn’t really been a movie to be made about a moment in the moment and released while that moment is still happening. And while the documentary 76 Days shows some obvious signs of rushed production, it will be the time capsule of what it meant to live during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The film follows the patients and medical workers dealing with the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, the original epicenter of the pandemic. Assembled from footage collected from the front lines, the movie puts audiences up close with those experiencing the effects of this virus firsthand, a much more personal experience than watching the same stock images that cycle through the news.
It’s really a miracle that this film was even made with the tight control over the media in China. The filmmakers and participants should be praised for their bravery in telling these stories that need to be told. It’s not an easy watch — some of the things presented here are truly horrifying, and others are terribly sad — but it’s one that needs to be seen nevertheless.
Admittedly, the movie does become repetitive at a certain point and one has to wonder whether this would have been more successful as a short than a full feature. Still, there is something to the general chaos of the film that is fitting. It’s an “unprecedented situation” (another buzz word), and these people have no idea what to do.
The frenetic run-and-gun style adopted by the filmmakers works at first because the viewer will know that this movie was made quickly and on-the-fly, but the anxiety it causes soon becomes very tiresome. Perhaps this is the point, especially given the fact that so many municipalities are beginning to ease their preventative measures, but the near-panic tone is a bit aggressive.
The film also falls short in giving the audience a particular subject to call the hero. And while this can partially be attributed to the safety of everyone involved and partially to the fact that this movie is very much made in haste, it still lacks the focus it needs to be more than general gloom and doom.
It’s clear that the filmmakers want this to be a work of activism. Made by filmmaker Hao Wu, journalist Weixi Chen, and another anonymous contributor, the film is meant to be seen by as many people as possible. And hopefully at some point in the near future it will be made available without the limitation of a paywall, as this is what is needed to ensure it reaches those who need to hear this message.
It would be safe to say that 76 Days is undoubtedly the single most urgent film of this year’s festival circuit. It’s not the first COVID-19 documentary, it certainly won’t be the last, and it may not be the best, but it’s what we have right now so people need to see it.
76 Days screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.