‘76 days’: How did the film with raw footage about the Wuhan pandemic crisis circumvent Chinese censorship?
A few of the hardest-hit hospitals only allowed reporters and filming crews thoroughly vetted by the authorities. But that strict control was not applied uniformly
'76 Days' is a rare documentary in many ways. It is a boots-on-ground narrative about the first few days of a global pandemic. It also comes from China, a country known for censoring any adverse media about events within its borders. Given that the COVID-19 outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, where whistleblowers -- from doctors to citizen journalists -- have 'disappeared' after releasing videos about the pandemic, it is a miracle that this documentary got made.
So how did the film make it past China's strict censorship laws? The secret lies in the collaboration between New York-based filmmaker Hao Wu, who was in Shanghai for Chinese New Year. By the time he caught a flight to New York before travel restrictions were imposed, the whole of China was angry as it had become increasingly apparent that the local government in Wuhan had lied and suppressed whistleblowers to conceal the outbreak.
"I began researching how to expose the Chinese government’s wrongdoings, to reveal the source of this immense human tragedy that was spreading globally as a pandemic. I reached out to filmmakers who were filming on the ground in Wuhan. After speaking to over a dozen, I found my two co-directors whose footage, with unprecedented access to the frontline, shook me," says Hao Wu, about how the project was conceived. According to Wu, he zeroed in on his two collaborators in mid-February but both had already started filming inside Wuhan in early February as frontline reporters sent to cover the outbreak.
Both of them -- Weixi Chen and another filmmaker who has chosen to be called "Anonymous" in the film credits -- became the film's co-directors. During the lockdown, the Chinese government restricted access to hospitals to only patients, medical professionals, and reporters. A few of the hardest-hit hospitals only allowed reporters and filming crews thoroughly vetted by the authorities. But that strict control was not applied uniformly. "Early in the lockdown when the situation was dire and chaotic and there was a severe shortage of medical supplies, many hospitals actually welcomed media exposure to help them look for help," said Wu about the unprecedented access that Weixi Chen and "Anonymous" took advantage of to film the raw, unfiltered, and human moments of the Wuhan crisis.
They also got lucky with some of the medical teams sent from elsewhere in China to support Wuhan, who were open to being filmed, partly because of their desire to be featured in this documentation of a historical moment. According to Wu, the three of them circumvented "China’s Great Firewall" to share daily rushes over the cloud to discuss which characters to follow, story angles to explore, and filming strategies.
Wu had also planned to smuggle himself into Wuhan during the lockdown but the pandemic then arrived in New York. Worse, by late March, the media environment in China over COVID-19 narratives was severely tightened due to increasing geopolitical tension. The collaboration ground to a halt and even the US network, who had approached Wu to do the documentary in the first place, decided to pull out.
It was quarantine time and Wu was stuck indoors in Atlanta with nothing to do. "I began editing my co-directors’ footage while under quarantine. Once I started editing, I quickly realized that the strongest footage was that shot in the hospitals... I decided to tell our story in the barest fashion possible, to focus on the individual experiences and forego any illustration of the bigger environment that these personal stories happen in," said Wu about the film's approach that steers clear of trying to cast judgment and instead documents how a city reacted to the crisis. It is mostly from the point of view of frontline medical staff, their patients, and loved ones and mostly restricted to the scenes in hospitals.
Interviews with whistleblowers were shot but eventually discarded by Wu for feeling dated since there was already quite a bit of coverage about them. Instead, he picked the scenes that were "most moving" and soon had a rough cut ready.
Stripped of the political censure or hot takes about how Wuhan handled (or mishandled) the outbreak, the film doesn't have anything that will necessarily displease the Chinese government -- especially now when we have already seen other countries fumble their pandemic response.
So when things got a little better in China, Wu approached Weixi Chen and "Anonymous" with his rough cut. They were more receptive about renewing the collaboration once they saw his edit. "They eventually agreed to collaborate with me to complete the film, after having understood my creative intention," said Wu.
In the end, time will tell if '76 Days' is a better, more timeless historical document for having avoided the geopolitical hot takes and taking a more human-interest centric approach. But in the immediate present, it certainly did help them avoid angering the Chinese powers that be and having the film seen in film festivals and virtual platforms across the world.
'76 Days' is brought to the US by MTV Documentary Films and will be launched in virtual cinemas beginning Friday, December 4.