NEW YORK — "Papa!" screams a hospital worker, covered from head to toe in a Hazmat suit and PPE, in the opening moments of the documentary "76 Days."
This is in the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, back in January and February when the city of 11 million went into a 2 1/2-month lockdown and hospitals were overrun. The health worker's father has just died, and her agony at not being able to sit by his side is overwhelming. Her colleagues restrain her as she sobs, moaning, "Papa, you'll stay forever in my heart."
"76 Days," shot in four Wuhan hospitals, captures a local horror before it became a global nightmare. Given the constraints at the time on footage and information from Wuhan, it's a rare window into the infancy of the pandemic. The film is directed by the New York-based filmmaker Hao Wu, who worked with two Chinese journalists — one named Weixi Chen, the other is remaining anonymous — to create of a portrait of the virus epicenter.
Some of the images document the fear and confusion of those early days: A group of patients mill outside the hospital doors, pleading to be let in. Others are by now more familiar: Solitary deaths followed by phone calls to family members.
"There has been so much news coverage and commentary about the pandemic but most of that has primarily been about statistics and our political divide," Wu said in an interview. "What I think is missing is the human stories, the human faces of the pandemic."
That may be especially true for stories of the pandemic from China, which President Donald Trump and his supporters have been highly critical of, blaming it for the "Wuhan virus." Wu's film, though, consciously avoids politics to concentrate on the humanity inside the hospitals — even if the workers are so obscured by their Hazmat suits that they're only identifiable by the names penned in sharpie on their backs.
"I feel like right now there is such a toxic background to a lot of the discussions around the virus," Wu says. "The virus is an enemy that doesn't care about your nationality."
"76 Days," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, is being released Friday by MTV Documentary Films is more than 50 virtual cinemas. Last month, it was nominated for best documentary by the IFP Gotham Awards.
It's among the first in a coming surge of coronavirus documentaries. A handful have already arrived, some — snapshots in an ongoing drama — hurriedly edited even as the scope of the pandemic has continued to expand. In October, Alex Gibney released "Totally Under Control," a two-part indictment of the federal U.S. response to the virus. In August, the artist-activist Ai Weiwei debuted "Coronation," a documentary he directed remotely with dozens of volunteers to capture the lockdown experience for ordinary Chinese people.
For some, the films are too harsh a reminder of an all-consuming reality. But "76 Days" feels like a vital early draft of history. Wu's first instinct had been to create a more straightforwardly journalistic film examining what happened in Wuhan. But Wu — a Chinese native who lives in New York with his partner and two children (he depicted his journey as a gay man in a traditional Chinese family in the 2019 Netflix documentary "All in My Family" ) — soon recognized the difficulty of access and the rapidly changing situation would make such a film either very difficult or potentially stale by the time it was finished.
"The images coming out of Wuhan were so harrowing. Everyone was scouring social media, trying to find out what happened in Wuhan, how it got so bad. A lot of us were so angry," he says. "I started getting away from wanting to assign blame."
The journalists, working with press passes, would have typically been closely watched by Communist party minders but in the chaos were given more free rein. Wu leaned into a more observational approach without talking heads, and urged his collaborators to focus on the people and the details. One poignant shot shows the ziplocked cell phone of a deceased person quietly ringing.
Wu's last trip to China was in January and February. Right after he came back, his grandfather was diagnosed with late stage liver cancer. He would die a month later. Wu, unable to visit because of travel restrictions and busy on the film, wasn't able to say goodbye in person.
"For me, I was compelled to tell the story. It's almost like a tribute to my grandfather," says Wu. "The shots that attracted me were those that showed the details of people willing to be nice to each other. I guess it was guilty about not being able to say goodbye to my grandfather, to hold his hand."