When we ring Sichuan-born documentary maker Hao Wu, he is in New York, dividing his time between his work and his family. It has been just six months since his most recent documentary, 76 Days, premiered at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). But what a six months it has been, with the film currently in contention to be among the nominees for Best Documentary Film at The Academy Awards in April.
While Canadian film Inconvenient Indian walked away with the award for best documentary at TIFF, there was widespread critical acclaim for 76 Days, with the film being described as “a human story, thrusting viewers smack in the middle of pandemonium as well as scenes of commiseration and selflessness,” by The Hollywood Reporter after its run at TIFF.
The movie is a gut-wrenching, human-first look at the 76 days that Wuhan in Hubei province was locked down, with travel restrictions set in place for the city and others across the province, before lockdowns spread around the world. There’s little to no conversation about policy or politics, with the directors focusing on the decisions that healthcare workers, patients and families were forced to make on a daily basis.
As Wu tells us, “I wanted to have a character story, rather than any type of newsy or social issue driven film. Normally Covid-19, you know, this topic being so newsy will not interest me.”
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Following Wu’s previous film All in My Family, a short and deeply personal documentary that focuses on his and his family’s struggle to accept his homosexuality, 76 Days may seem like something of a departure.
However, for Wu, deciding to pursue a film project about Covid-19, was itself a deeply personal decision. His take is actually bound up, once again, with his family, as well as his own experience with the virus in China. At the outset of the virus in China, Wu and his partner were planning to fly to Shanghai to visit his family. As the virus spread, they decided that Wu would fly to China by himself.
Still from 76 Days
“Last year, I was in Shanghai with my parents and my sister’s family for Chinese New Year. I experienced what a lot of Chinese people had gone through,” Wu explains about his own deeply emotional experience with the tragedy caused by Covid-19. “That was a really bizarre Chinese New Year, everybody was locked indoors. Everybody was trying to figure out what was happening. How could this be so bad?
“Everybody was also angry. My parents have late stage cancer, I still don’t know when I’ll be able to see them again, whether they will be able to see their grandchildren, my kids again. Also, my grandpa passed away in early March, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to him because of the travel restrictions in place at that time. And he passed away really quickly before I could figure out what was happening or make travel arrangements. All of this made the Covid-19 story extremely personal for me.”
After Wu had signed on to make a documentary about Covid-19 for a US network, he found two China-based directors who helped him film footage in four different Wuhan hospitals. Chen Weixi and an anonymous filmmaker gathered footage at the outset of the lockdown in Wuhan, wearing extensive amounts of protective gear every morning so that they could exhaustively document what was happening in the city.
The network then stepped back, but Wu persevered.
When the US network approached me, and asked me if I wanted to do a film I jumped on. Later, even after the network stopped supporting this project, I continued on independently because I really wanted something to show for my emotional ups and downs and my emotional journey as well as all this anxiety and fear, and everything I had gone through personally myself.
However, as the Chinese government started to crack down on the documentation and publication of information around the virus in Wuhan, the two China-based directors grew nervous and dropped off the project as well. “I told them my goal is to really respect how you guys film on the front line, to make a story just about the individuals who are collectively trying to survive,” says Wu. “I never met them and they didn’t know my background, they didn’t fully trust me.”
Wu then took their footage, spent two months making a rough cut and went back to the pair, showing them his intention with the movie, with the aim of gaining their trust. They decided to jump back on, and signed the necessary legal documents required to move forward with the project.
A month after its appearance in Toronto, it was announced that 76 Days had been picked up by MTV Documentary Films for distribution, with an emphasis on preparing it for the awards season — and for the Oscars specifically. The acquisition came about as Sheila Nevins, the head of MTV’s documentary film unit, was serving on the jury for documentary films at Heartland Film Festival in Indiana, where the film was showing in early October, 2020. After she saw it, the deal was announced just days later.
“We felt extremely lucky to premiere at Toronto,” says Wu. “At first, we thought, ‘oh, this is the first film about Covid-19 out at a major festival, somebody will pick it up.’ But after Toronto, nobody bought it. We realized that by the time we premiered in Toronto, most of the distributors or streaming networks had already committed to some Covid-19 film.” Perhaps feeling that 76 Days had missed its chance at that point, Wu describes the subsequent meeting with Nevins as “serendipity” and “a little bit unreal to me.”
In December 2020, 76 Days was released in more than 50 virtual cinemas around the US and, according to IndieWire, brought in over 100,000USD in revenue, while also garnering positive reviews from major critics. Earlier this month it was released on Paramount’s streaming service, Paramount +, and is now waiting to hear whether it will be among the five nominated documentaries for this year’s Academy Awards, which will be announced on March 15.
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As such, it has been a whirlwind year for 76 Days and the three directors who made it happen. While there’s excitement around the possibility of further recognition at awards, Wu says he is mostly just happy with how the film came out. “As a Chinese filmmaker, I just feel like too much discussion about Covid-19 or about China in relation to Covid-19 has been around its politics. I think a lot of the narrative missed the point with not giving enough agency to the individuals on the ground.
“I just hope this film can give them some of the agency back to let people know and to really see the human side of this issue.”
All images courtesy of Hao Wu
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