76 DAYS: Carry Fire

November 3, 2020

Guest post by Yihan Hong, student at New York University

On 23 January 2020, with only two more days left until the Chinese Spring Festival, the central government of China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities nearby in an effort to quarantine the center of Coronavirus Disease 2019’s outbreak: also known as the Wuhan lockdown. At the same time, people living in other cities besides Hubei Province were still wondering in great fear, panic, and confusion, having no idea what was coming; reports about a mysterious strain of pneumonia in Wuhan only began cropping up in late December. Later it was soon recognized as fake news until the lockdown started officially. People in Shanghai finally realized that it might be another SARS repeated. This time of the year was supposed to be the annual peak in travel for up to 3 billion people transporting throughout the whole country for family reunification, and I’d hoped to enjoy my very first Spring Festival with my family after studying abroad for 5 years. However, the joy and celebration was completely replaced by frustration. We knew very little about how the virus was transmitted and how serious it could get.

For the next few days, my mum was anxiously checking my airline every minute to make sure I could still come back to the US before the semester began. At the same time, officials announced the virus was contagious and the number turned massive in a sudden. Luckily (or unluckily, due to the present situation), I got on the plane on 28 January, and the next day, Shanghai went into lockdown, canceling all the flights and most transportation. Over the next few months, I saw the same things happen in New York, that the schools were shut down and the city went into the quarantine. I called my family and friends in China to make sure they were safe and watched videos of residents pleading for help and panicking patients in hospitals. Online posts and social media were all covered by people asking for advice and crying for help after being rejected by the hospitals and ignored by government staff. But being far away from Wuhan, from China, except for experiencing the whole fifteen hours’ flight with hundreds of international students sitting together wearing gloves and masks nervously, I have never gotten the real chance to truly look into the real details about the people who were facing this critical condition directly.

With SDAFF, I am finally able to see what I would like to find out about the backstories without exaggerated praise or any politicized narratives around COVID-19 — a real documentary about the earliest days of the outbreak in Wuhan. Reporting and documenting those stories that happened in Wuhan could be difficult, especially on the front lines of the pandemic. Chinese documentary filmmaker Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and an anonymous third filmmaker bring the audience into four different hospitals in Wuhan, with close observation of the doctors, patients, and even their families.

The opening sequence immediately brings the audience onto the frontlines of these traumatic and suffocating local hospitals with a private moment: a medical worker is dragged by her co-workers through the empty halls of the hospital, crying out for her last chance to see and say goodbye to her father, who seems to be a victim of COVID-19. Around her, colleagues in hazmat suits softly urge her to remain calm and composure since they need her to get back to work alongside them. Cameras continued following her cries and tears mixing with her colleagues’ persuasion in the background chasing until the dead father was sent on a hearse. As the beginning, this scene has already given me goosebumps and it is so compelling that I nearly cannot bear the sadness and misery that I have to pause. Honestly, along with this “76 Days’ journey”, there are a few moments that I feel the online streaming might be the only way for me to complete the whole film: for I get the chance to pause whenever I need to look away or have a deep breathe so that I will not just burst out crying.

The health-care workers dressing in forbidding FPE suits which are hard to distinguish except for the markers written on their hazmat suits, walking in the empty hallways of the hospitals gives a randomly harrowing and cold science-fiction look. The suits forbid the audience to see the medical workers’ faces, almost impossible for me to recognize their emotions, that all I see is their haunting, cold, even mechanical moves. However, the footage continually brings out those seemingly small, random but warm details slowly introducing us to some of the key characters: the Shanghai doctor, Little Tian who drove 500 miles to Wuhan to serve as reinforcement, the woman who collects ID cards and belongings of the recently deceased, the communist who insists on going home, or the young couple who is unable to see their newborn baby. It is hard to tell the narratives in the beginning, viewing all that  footage and small moments like crying medical workers, and the panic patients pushing around trying to get in. But slowly, as we observe closely and follow those character’s experience, the systems of the hospital and emotions of either medical workers or patients are slowly and painfully reborn out of confusion or chaos to go back into order. No matter the attitudes of patients, or the patterns of speech, bedside manner, they are all shifting to reasserting disease management.

There are also moments that make me smile. The pesky old man keeps complaining and sobbing, but when we hear him getting a phone call from his son, he was asked to be a model because he is a Communist party member. Doctor Little Tian holds the elderly ladies’ hand and draws smiley faces on the gloves to encourage her to live. Medical workers write names of different food cuisines on each other’s hazmat suits depending on where they originally come from, planning to hang out after the critical condition settles down. One female patient calls back home insisting she is only discussing the happy things, and they should leave the sadness back until she gets home.

As a documentary about the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, 76 Days is definitely not about raising questions to the political leadership, or fixating on the physical toll of the virus. Instead, it is emotionally and slowly showing all those seemingly small and tiny moments happening on those normal people. The footage and editing are unvarnished and raw, but real enough to be a first draft of a history that is still going on brutally and heroically. With its “fly-on-the-wall” style of documenting without propaganda or criticism, it might be better to define 76 Days as a snapshot of these realities, happened or happening (both in the past and present, or even in the near future), as one piece of the puzzle depicting a much larger picture. It is about humanity, a real portrait of a city under the unimaginable crisis, and also a fragment carrying fires of hope and tears.

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Yihan Hong is a photographer currently residing in New York City. She holds a bachelor degree in photography from the renowned Parsons School of Design, and studies cinema studies at New York University. Her own artistic practice mainly focuses on themes of spirituality, religion, and the border between the real and unreal. Feel free to follow her on instagram @yihanh0425 and to view her work at yihanh.com.

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