Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 03, 2020 1:19 pm 
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A world full of life, even when people are dying in droves

Raw and intimate, this documentary, mainly shot inside hospitals, captures the struggles of patients, families and frontline medical professionals battling the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan in the first intensive days of the outbreak and two and a half months of the local lockdown. With extraordinary immediacy the camera eye captures the tireless empathy of the hospital staff.

We almost never see any medical personnel not in protective gear and the first sight is of a group of hospital workers, bundled up like Martians. Some of them have names and cute pictures drawn with sharpies on the back of their coveralls. There is no shortage of images of intubation scars, corpses being wheeled away, and patients and family members desperate and crying. But the overwhelming memory is of patience and kindness. There seems to be no time for prima donnas or nasty people, or they're edited out. Words like "grandpa," "grandma," "uncle," and "auntie" echo over and over and over giving the sense that in this large, impersonal, modern city (of a mere 11 million) it's just one big family.

There are patients, mostly older (but one who dies at "only 60" is noted, sadly), who are immobile and cannot speak or are urged not to, to save their energy. But the camera tends perhaps as if by default to linger on the rarer ones who are never very ill, but are kept in hospital in quarantine and for observation. There are several old men who are restless and wander around at night and try to leave and are captured and brought back; and there's a warning that if they're uncontrollable the police will be summoned (a threat?). One speaks, though abed, turned on his side, in his clothes, as some are, insisting he wants to die now. He's in pain, why should he live? And they balk at the isolation from spouses or family and say the room is like a prison. There's life in the old boys yet. Staff reassure them that there are many of them present to help, and they are their family now.

To help the old guy who wants to die, and is crying, a staff member calls his son and has him urge his father to buck up, reminding him he is a Communist Party member. He is wearing a dark cap in fact out of a socialist realist mural. "What has that got to do with it?" the old man says. "I'll be a Communist Party member when I'm dead!" But the staff member and the son push this theme, perhaps with success. The aim is to get the man hopeful and eating again.

One remembers the talk of food, of all the local dishes the recovered, leaving patients promise to prepare for the staff members when it's all over, and the cheering and warm goodbyes when they leave. The young woman who has a baby in the hospital, which is kept there when she is brought home. The vigorous, closely examined baby, the best eater on the ward. The mother and father preparing their little flat for the baby, waiting to be called. And they are called, and they are waiting at the door of the ward, the mother excited, hoping their baby will be pretty. "Pretty?" her husband says. "What about healthy?" "We know she's healthy."

Late in the film we do see the face of a head nurse, seated at a desk, pulling cell phones and s few personal effects, grandmothers' jade bracelets, from a small bin, the record of the dying, and she patiently calls the family, asking them to come and pick these up. We see her carry one such item downstairs to the outside barrier where she greets a weeping daughter with the objects, apologizing profusely, with "I'm so sorry we could not save her. We did our best. We tried everything we could."

Outside where we get rare glimpses there is only a limited sense of the intensity, perhaps, some would say, brutality of the lockdown that's going on, the millions of people confined, containers of food seen being delivered to them somehow, we don't know how, from outside. All that, and the complex, perhaps uneven, logistics of it, is not the subject of this film. But we realize this, however intense and richly human, is only a very partial picture of these events; there is enough material for a decade of Wuhan documentaries. Do we have the courage, patience, and humanity for that, exhibited by these remarkable filmmakers?

It's true this film lacks strong organization or a satisfying trajectory and in that perhaps it is "raw" as some have called it. But the overwhelming impression is of the humanity and courage of the emergency staff whose sense of dedication has kept them here, in the hospital contamination ward, hour after hour, at the peak so intense they are able to rest only sitting on benches. We are kept there, with dedication. This is not a study of medical procedures, or public health programs - though they must have worked. One of the year's important and notable documentaries.

76 Days, 93 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2020, showing or scheduled for at least a dozen other festivals, including DOC NYC Nov. 11, in connection with which it was screened for this review. Documentary feature audience award at AFI. Metascore 80. David Sims in his The Atlantic calls this "a first draft of a history that's still being written." A MTV Documentary Films release, 76 Days launches in virtual cinemas throughout the United States from Dec. 4, 2020.


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