Every single day of 2020 has felt like a month, and it seems like an eternity has gone by since the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic. So it’s easy to forget what it was like when people were first being diagnosed with this strange new illness, especially in Wuhan, the Chinese epicenter of the early outbreak. 76 Days shines a light onto the confusion, anxiety, and devastation of this time period through its meticulous documentation of the inner workings of Chinese hospitals dealing with COVID-19 firsthand. It’s incredible that this footage exists, and must have required great bravery on the part of the documentary filmmakers, since in the early stages it was unclear how covid was transmitted from person to person and how effective PPE actually was in protecting individuals who were regularly exposed. They put themselves on the line to preserve these dramatic moments in history, and that alone makes 76 Days incredibly effective.

What it shows most of all is something that has become abundantly clear over the course of this public health crisis, and that is the seemingly boundless energy and compassion of frontline healthcare workers. Throughout 76 Days, we see doctors and nurses in the midst of a disaster, desperately trying to create order out of chaos. A woman begs patients to maintain a line, to step back from the door, to allow space for one person to enter the hospital at a time. Her voice is all but drowned out by the panicked frenzy of the crowd. Another spends a day calling people to have them come collect the personal belongings of their loved ones, pulling endless cellphones and ID cards out of a box, a tiny graveyard of those who were the first to die in an epidemic that would leave no part of the world unscathed. Each healthcare worker is covered from head to toe in protective equipment, leaving no part of their body exposed to any potential contagion. But still, they find small ways to make themselves look and feel more human. They draw on each other’s disposable hazmat suits with names, phrases, and pictures, tilting at windmills to try and make this alien experience a little less frightening for everyone involved.

There’s plenty of great content in 76 Days, but the main criticism that can be levied at it is that much of it tends to be repetitive. We see the same situations and emotional beats repeated over and over again that it’s worth questioning if this really has enough in it to merit a feature-length film. Maybe this should have been an astonishing, jaw-dropping documentary short instead of pushing for a full 90 minutes. As impactful as the film is, there’s little that you get out of the full runtime that you couldn’t glean from the first 30 minutes or so. And the fact that this doesn’t really feature interviews or much content external to the hospital setting makes it struggle to fill the runtime even more. At a certain point, you hit a wall.

But despite this, its emotional impact is undeniable. The brief moments outside the hospital are, surprisingly, the film at its most eerie. Within the carefully run wards of the hospital, organized chaos abounds. The streets of Wuhan, on the other hand, are oppressively silent, every car and pedestrian conspicuously absent from the normally crowded scene. If the hospital didn’t let us know that there was something deeply wrong going on, the disturbingly empty streets certainly would. It makes it seem that there isn’t so much a health crisis as a full-blown apocalypse. The silence in downtown Wuhan should be soothing after spending so much time witnessing the hysteria of the COVID-19 wards. It isn’t.

It’s these moments of brief reprieve that underscore the tragedy of the situation, and it’s here where 76 Days leaves its mark. The final scene, when air raid sirens go off to commemorate the deaths of COVID-19 victims, captures perfectly the almost incomprehensible sense of grief. The sirens last for three full minutes in Wuhan, an anguished wail that echoes throughout the city, and cements 76 Days as a remarkably poignant fly-on-the-wall documentary that will serve as a record of the pandemic’s origins for years to come.

Rating: ★★★½

Launches in Virtual Cinemas Nationwide (US) Beginning Friday, December 4 2020