Future Tense

What It Was Like to Make a Documentary About Wuhan’s COVID-19 Crisis From New York

A health care worker in PPE stands over a patient in a hospital bed.
76 Days. MTV Films

On Wednesday at noon Eastern time, join Future Tense for a discussion with Hao Wu about the making of his latest documentary, 76 Days.

On Jan. 23, 2020, China locked down the city of Wuhan, home to 11 million people, to combat the emerging COVID-19 outbreak. Shortly afterward, filmmaker Hao Wu returned home to New York City after visiting his family in Shanghai but was unable to reenter China to say goodbye to his dying grandfather. So Wu began exploring ways he could document the COVID-19 crisis from the United States. In collaboration with two filmmakers on the ground in Wuhan, filming in four separate hospitals, Wu created 76 Days—a gut-wrenchingly raw narrative about death and rebirth in a city ravaged by the pandemic. Viewers in the U.S. and Canada can stream the film by going to the 76 Days website and selecting a local theater they’d like to support.

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I spoke with Wu about the creation of 76 Days, takeaways from the early days of the pandemic, and the simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring stories of patients and health care workers in Wuhan. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Riley Davis: Tell me a little bit about the timeline for creating this documentary. I know you were in China right up until lockdown. When after that did you start working on this film?

Hao Wu: In early February, a U.S. network had just approached me and asked me if I wanted to make a film. So that’s when I started researching the project. I reached out to over a dozen filmmakers who had started filming on in Wuhan. After talking to them, that’s how I found my two co-directors. And then, as they continued filming, we started collaborating over the internet. They would upload the footage every day after filming to a cloud service in China, and then I would download the footage in New York.

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For a long time, we couldn’t figure out how to tell the story. I actually reached out to filmmakers in other countries, like in Italy, Spain, South Korea. I started filming in New York myself in March. For a while, we thought we were going to make a global pandemic film. But I think in the end, I just realized how unique my co-directors’ footage was—and still is. So in early April, we just decided to really focus the story on Wuhan alone. And then we decided to use the lockdown as a container to tell the story.

In early July, we submitted the film to Toronto and once the Toronto International Film Festival accepted it, we just finished it by the time we premiered in early September.

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Who are your other two co-directors? Can you talk a little bit more about how they got such unrestricted access during filming?

Weixi Chen is a video reporter for Esquire China who also makes documentary films on the side. Anonymous is a local photojournalist, for a local state-owned newspaper, who didn’t want to be named because of his job.

Access to hospitals was actually a decision that was made at the hospital level. So it’s really up to each individual hospital what type of people they would allow in, or what kind of access they would grant. But Weixi, through his own personal connections, found a medical team from elsewhere in China coming in to support a local Wuhan hospital. So he got himself in with that medical team. Anonymous already knew several hospitals, and he also was sent to the hospital to take photos as part of the local newspaper’s reporting. I’m extremely fortunate that I found co-directors who definitely can shoot really empathic, amazing footage on the front line.

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And this was sort of a unique situation, I imagine, given that you weren’t on the ground for filming. How did the editing process differ from your other movies?

In the past, I shot and I edited my own film. Because I edit my own film, I know what type of footage and what type of shots I would need. And usually, I work very closely with a cameraman. I will also be the second camera on the shot, or I will film footage myself. But with this one, I really feel like the way my co-directors were approaching the subject is very similar to my approach, just in some of the shooting style and their instincts as filmmakers, and their instinct as to how to follow characters. In that way, there’s some common ground to start with.

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You were in your own lockdown in New York City as you were working on the film. Did that inform any of the editorial choices you made as you were putting the film together?

Absolutely. I think there’s several things that affected me emotionally as I was putting the film together. One is my family. My grandpa passed away, and I wasn’t able to say goodbye to him. So that’s a big emotional burden for me to have carried this last year. There’s immense guilt and immense sadness, not being able to say goodbye to him. I was also worried about my parents, who have cancer, and I was worried when we would be able to see each other again. And I thought of how the U.S. government completely fumbled in its response to the pandemic. To live in New York during that time and to experience the dystopian feel, all around the city, and the people’s fear and despair here. And also, immediately afterward, the Black Lives Matter protests started all over the country. It just felt like the country was in a very precarious situation. So when I started putting the film together, I guess subconsciously I was looking for that glimmer of hope in the footage. I was looking for small gestures of kindness in my characters.

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Another big thing is, obviously, the anti-Asian racism that started happening here. For me, as a Chinese American, for the first time it felt unsafe to even walk out in New York. And then witnessing the geopolitical finger-pointing, the U.S. blaming everything on China and China becoming extremely defensive. So that’s another consideration as I went into the edit.

There were so, so many heartbreaking moments and gratingly raw parts of the film. How did you even begin to choose which to show and what to concentrate on?

I think I was just following my emotional instinct. Basically, I went in and searched for all the gems. Then I tried to figure out how to link them together. And this film is a great departure from my past films. I’ve never done this type of film before. But in the early stages of editing, I definitely went back to look for inspiration, trying to go back to some of the classic documentary film where there’s no narration, there’s no explaining, just putting the viewers there in the situation.

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Was there anything that you particularly wish you could have included in the final cut that you couldn’t? I know there was so much in there already.

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I wish we could have known who could eventually emerge as the main characters in the film, so we could have filmed them more. But my co-directors really couldn’t tell who might be the main character, especially in the early days of the lockdown. Other than the old grandpa who’s wandering the hallway, who, because my co-director Weixi shot so much footage of him, we knew early on could be a recurring character.

But for a lot of the other characters, we only got to know that they could play an important role in the film as we were approaching the end of filming. But that’s just the nature of the production, just because it was so chaotic and it’s almost like a war zone inside of a hospital.

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One of the details that I loved, which I was hoping you could explain, were the health care workers’ hazmat suits and what was written on them.

At the very beginning, the hospital workers wrote their names on the back of the hazmat suit, because everybody was covered up and you couldn’t tell who is who inside the contamination zone. That was just for convenience’s sake. But as the conditions in the hospitals started to come under control, they had more time, they were less stressed out. Later during the lockdown process, they started drawing pictures on the suits—they wrote the food they craved, the things they missed. It was little human moments, for them.

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What are your thoughts on the pandemic? Has your perspective shifted for better or worse after spending so much time depicting Wuhan and this very extreme situation and response?

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I’ve become more optimistic because during the editing, I started reading about past pandemics—about the AIDS crisis and the Spanish flu, the plague. … In most of those books, the message is pretty dark. And anytime a pandemic happens, each community is just trying to protect themselves and they’re trying to blame other people for causing it. The other side of human nature really comes out. But with this pandemic, I’ve been really encouraged not just from what the footage showed me of what happened in Wuhan, but also because of the stories I learned in New York from my friends. It’s also from stories I heard from filmmakers in Spain and in Milan. It’s how people really volunteered to help the stricken, helped those people locked inside their apartments, delivered groceries, drove people around.

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The same story happened in Wuhan as well. China’s going through a lot of changes. People say the society there can be really cutthroat, really cold. But in times of crisis, you do see local Wuhan residents, just like residents in Milan and Madrid, who helped each other. By no means are there only these kinds of heroic stories. In every city, there are also very selfish stories about people discriminating against each other, people shunning patients who have recovered from COVID-19. But there are indeed heartwarming stories that happened everywhere, and that gives me hope.

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And since you’ve spent so much time critically thinking about the pandemic from Wuhan and from here, what parallels do you see between the Chinese government’s response to the early days of the pandemic and the U.S.’s? Do you think either has managed to start effectively managing the crisis, over a year later?

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I think the Chinese government definitely has done a great job. Just today, the New York Times had a great article about it, basically talking about what the Chinese government did right, and also why it cannot be entirely applied in the United States, just because of our political system, and also what we want here, in terms of our values, our normal practices. So if you only look at case numbers, death numbers, and GDP numbers, China has done a fantastic job. But part of the reason we made some of the film so raw and so unflinching is because I don’t want people to forget this.

I still think there’s a lot more we need to think about, maybe once this is over. What we in the U.S. can learn from not just China, but also from other Asian countries, and how can we balance the collective good versus individual freedom in times of crisis?

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It is a wake-up call, though. For me, as an immigrant and living in my adopted homeland, for a long time I always thought the U.S. has the best system. Not just political system, but economic and scientific as well as public health. So to see, over the last year, how we completely messed up our response, it really made me question my own assumptions about the superiority of the U.S. system.

Was there anything that surprised you while you were making this, either in terms of the health care workers’ responses, or in the little details your counterparts captured, or anything that just made you go, “Wow, I never would have expected that”?

I think for me, the biggest surprise came when I started showing the film and many Chinese friends came up to me and said, “The nurses are so nice to the patients. Why are they so nice?” Because in recent years, there has been growing tension between health care and patient populations in China because the health care costs are rising so high, and also the resources are really limited in China. There’s a lot tension, and there has been increasing violence from patients with their doctors in China.

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Some people were really shocked to see that in these hospitals, the nurses were almost like a surrogate family. So yeah, that came as a big surprise to me, because that’s not something I was thinking about when I was editing this film.

I think there are a couple of reasons why. One is in times of crisis, some people naturally want to reach out more to help each other more. Second is that the government was paying for everything, so the patients had no complaint essentially about the quality of the care. Gradually, I think patients just realized that they’re being cared for totally cost-free. So that’s another reason why the relationship between workers and patients could be so harmonious inside the hospital during the lockdown.

So where do you go next from this? Are you working on anything else COVID-related, or anything else that you’re excited about?

I’m developing both narrative as well as documentary projects at the moment. But I think I’m done with COVID. It was emotionally draining experience making this film. I think I just want to take a step back and just watch other COVID films from my filmmaker friends.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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