I want to say goodbye. I just want to see him one last time. Please let me say goodbye. Father! You will remain in my heart always.
A medical worker is beside herself with grief as her father’s body is wheeled away. But since he has died of Covid-19, she cannot go anywhere near him. Although she is in personal protective equipment, like everybody else around her, her grief slices through her white plastic suit and splatters onto the screen.
There are numerous such harrowing moments in the documentary 76 Days, which has been shot mainly in hospitals in Wuhan during the 76-day lockdown in the Chinese city. The 92-minute film provides an intimate, rigorous trench report on the coronavirus pandemic. The untrammelled access provided to the filmmakers to shoot inside wards, Intensive Care Units and operation theatres ensures that there isn’t a single wasted moment. Every shot and every scene add up to a larger picture of dedication, compassion, resilience, tragedy and grace in the face of an unparalleled health disaster in modern times.
The documentary has been directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu and a third filmmaker credited only as Anonymous. The excellent editing is by Wu, who creates an unerring rhythm that captures victories and losses big and small alongside making room for black humour.
76 Days is among the titles that will be streamed at the online edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival, which runs from October 29 to November 4. The documentary, despite its specific setting, serves as a tribute to medical professionals across the world. As the number of Covid-19 cases rise once again in Europe and the United States and lingers in India, the film reminds us of the perils of taking the pandemic lightly.
The sounds of ambulance sirens and the shuffling of feet encased in plastic provide a grim soundtrack for a film that only occasionally ventures out of hospital to depict a severely locked-down city. In the wards, there is initially chaos as patients pour in during the early days of the pandemic. The staffers, their voices breaking with tension, assure patients that everyone will get in eventually.
The head nurse advises her colleagues to conserve their energy and rest whenever they can – sound counsel, given the difficulties of working constantly in PPE and having to confront patients who are impatient, stubborn and terrified.
Among the memorable close-ups in the bravura cinematography (by Weixi Chen, Anonymous and a host of others) are shots of a patient, her eyes filled with fright as she is intubated.
Some patients struggle to breathe, while others are convinced that they are going to die. A grandmother who is doing badly refuses to leave her nurse’s hand. We are your family now, the nurse tells the old woman.
There are deaths and episodes of lengthy hospitalisation, but also welcome signs of life. A baby is born. The seriously ill recover. It’s a crisis, but it can be managed with timely medical attention, the film suggests.
An elderly man who insists on leaving his room ever so often provides irritation and entertainment to the staff. The wandering patient is a reminder of the human will to not only survive, but also assert itself, whatever the circumstances.
This may continue till next year, grumbles gramps, unaware of how prescient he is being.
The doctors and nurses find ways to lighten the unrelenting pressure and exhaustion. They draw smileys and “get well soon” messages on the air-filled balloons used to prevent bed sores. Their names are stencilled on their suits, as also are drawings of flowers and a poignant yearning for normalcy – “Clay pot kitchen I miss you.”
In another corner of the hospital, the belongings of patients who have lost the Covid-19 battle are stored in the nursing bay. A phone rings even as it is being filmed. The screen lights up to announce “32 unread messages”.
Any potential for propaganda is undercut by the crisp editing and narrative momentum. A cranky patient who is lectured about being a good Communist by his son claps back, what does that have to do with anything?
Although the medical personnel’s faces are hidden behind PPE, their emotions leak through their suits. There are moments when they too are overwhelmed by the suffering that surrounds them. The footage of the doctors and nurses catching a break, stretching their overworked limbs or engaging in banter takes the film out of Wuhan and into any Covid-19 hospital anywhere in the world.