Chenshu Zhou, “76 Days: Can the Dead Speak?”

76 Days, a feature-length documentary film focusing on the initial coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city Wuhan, has been making the rounds at film festivals around the world since September. Unlike Ai Weiwei’s Coronation, which offers a more comprehensive picture of the same subject, 76 Days devotes most of its screen time to one intensive care unit inside a hospital in Wuhan during its 76 days under strict lockdown. Weixi Chen, a journalist for Esquire China, and a local photojournalist credited as “Anonymous” shot the footage, which Hao Wu (director of The People’s Republic of Desire and All in My Family) then edited from his home in the United States.

While the pandemic continues to rage in many parts of the world (including the US), 76 Days is timely, topical, and, despite its limited perspective, relatively informative. For those still insensitive to the reality of the novel coronavirus and for those curious about what goes on behind the closed doors of ICUs, 76 Days is a valuable record of the early stage of the pandemic. Yet watching it as a narrative film, I also find 76 Days to be underwhelming, if not troubling at times. Beyond its immediate topic of the coronavirus, it raises both old and new questions about representation in our now distantly connected world that are worth a closer look.

In several ways 76 Days frustrates expectations. Despite featuring a tense, dramatic scene as its trailer, most of 76 Daysfeels rather quiet. Inside the ICU, there isn’t the chaos one might expect. Patients await their fates in hospital beds while medical workers go about attending to them in a more or less routine manner. It is not that we do not witness emotional outbursts or heart wrenching moments, like when an old man who keeps trying to “escape” suddenly breaks down saying he knows he is dying, or when the head nurse sorts through the belongings of the dead. But overall the mood is not dramatic, and it is clear that Wu aimed not to dramatize (by not including a soundtrack for example). This in itself is refreshing and demystifying. After all, not everyone has time to be sentimental in the face of death. (The contradictory message, of course, is that the marketing of this film clearly privileges intensity and chaos.)

Yet the everyday routineness of ICU life also disrupts any sense of time passing. For a film that foregrounds time in its title, Wu made the interesting decision not to time stamp the film but only use the footage itself to suggest time. During most of the film, one thus only gets a vague sense of where one stands in the 76 days. Whenever a specific date is referenced, it feels surprising. At least to this viewer, knowing how long a patient has spent in a hospital matters, and for the film not to provide that it is very unsatisfying. Without the clear progression of time and a strong narrative, 76 Daysalso feels more like raw footage than a finished film.   

The truly troubling part of the film, however, is its portrayal of the patients with more severe symptoms. I am the kind of person who usually cries at everything, whether it’s a six-year-old playing the guitar or John McCain’s concession speech from 2008. I started 76 Days preparing to tear up, but it did not happen. Part of it, I suspect, is due to the difficulty of connecting with the people being filmed over PPE and face masks that hide their faces. During the first 30 minutes of the film, it was difficult to remember who was who and to recognize their faces or voices. Meanwhile, my viewing was frequently interrupted by another unanticipated and uncomfortable thought: did the “subjects” give their consent to be included in the film? For those who can no longer give consent, did their families give consent?

What is undeniably visible in 76 Days are aging, unconscious, and dying bodies lying silently in their hospital beds. There are shots of swollen hands (both pre-and-posthumous), dirty fingernails, wrinkled, yellowing faces with dents from repeated intubation. These images are extremely hard to look at. They unmistakably show us what illness takes away – your dignity as a human being, your individuality, everything that makes you who you are beyond the physical mass of a body that you can no longer control. Are these images there to shock viewers into awareness? Yes, coronavirus is ugly, death is ugly, and there is proof. But my immediate reaction was to turn to my husband who was watching the film with me and said: “if I am ever in a similar situation and if I die, please remember that I do not give consent. I don’t ever want people to see me like that.”

There is one patient who is identified by name in the film. In one scene, she is shown lying in her hospital bed unable to speak while several medical workers surround her and tell her things will be ok. Later we find out that she has passed away and we get a scene of the head nurse handing her belongings to her daughter outside of the hospital. Somehow not knowing whether she was ok with her last moments being shown in this film and whether her family is ok with it really bothers me. Perhaps she didn’t mind it. Perhaps her daughter was even glad that she could at least get a glimpse of her mother in the hospital bed since she could not visit her in the ICU in real life. I wish I knew. I wish I knew more about who she was and what she did before she became a sick body in a film, a number in a pandemic. But I don’t. I don’t know if she felt violated with the camera of a stranger pointing at her in her most vulnerable moments.

What seems likely (unless the filmmakers say otherwise), rather, is that the absence of the need to obtain consent was fundamental to how 76 Days could come into being in the first place. As mentioned earlier, 76 Days was a result of trans-pacific collaboration. Without Wu’s intervention, footage might have stayed footage, or it might lose its independence, become subsumed by bigger narratives of the outbreak more acceptable to both the Chinese state and its people (as in several recent Chinese tv series that dramatize the event). Without Chen and Anonymous, Wu of course would have nothing to work with. I’d like to believe that Wu would have wanted to go to Wuhan if he could have. In an interviewwith the Toronto International Film Festival, Wu was asked about the issue of access. The interviewer was gesturing toward a comment on China’s control of information. But Wu, instead, shared that he had tried to film at hospitals in New York, which he found to be extremely difficult. “It would be more difficult here because of the HIPPA laws,” he said. 

What is implied is that there are no such laws in China, and it was easier to gain access there. But aren’t privacy laws precisely what prevent documentary filmmakers from looking at their stories merely as stories, and their “subjects” as merely characters in a film?

The ethical dilemma of photographing and documenting human suffering is not something new. If consent was necessary for someone to be included in an image, we probably would not have seen a lot of the iconic images that have changed the world, such as the “Napalm Girl” shot by Nick Ut during the Vietnam War. So perhaps the more important question is, does the violation, assuming that in itself it is never ok, lead to something important? Is it a worthwhile price to pay for greater empathy and justice? (Does the greater good even justify the taking of someone’s image if they adamantly refuse to be photographed and filmed?)

French philosopher Jacques Rancière offers a surprising but useful way to think about these questions. In an essay called “The Intolerable Image” (included in the book The Emancipated Spectator), Rancière expresses skepticism at the assumption that making an image so full of pain to the degree that it is intolerable for the spectator can necessarily lead to guilt/indignation and then action. Without a pre-existing political movement that contextualizes the pain, he suggests, the link between knowledge and practice is tenuous. But this also does not mean that images are inherently impotent. Rancière argues against those maintaining that the ubiquity of intolerable images desensitizes us, banalizes horrors while there is always something at the heart of the horror that is unrepresentable (the Holocaust being a prime example). For Rancière, images are potentially transformative; their capacity to effect change is tied to their ability to draw out new configurations of “what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought, and consequently a new land of possibilities. But they do so on condition that their meaning or effect is not anticipated.” In other words, strong authorial intentions backfire; what is seen as a strength of images is the indeterminacy of meaning, which invites curiosity and contemplation.

Bypassing the issue of consent, Rancière’s approach is a practical one that we can apply to assess the efficacy of 76 Days. Does the film draw out new configurations of what can be seen and thought? Did it succeed in reshaping the system of representations (or “the dispositif of visibility” in Rancière’s words) that sustain our sense of the reality surrounding the coronavirus pandemic? I’m afraid 76 Days does not let me see past how the severely ill and the dead appear on screen with no voice and no privacy laws to protect themselves. If the message of the film is simply that medical workers tried their best, patients strived to survive, COVID-19 is a tragedy, and death is ugly, I’m not sure if it is worth it to traffic individual suffering in such a blunt way. After all, as Rancière also writes:

We do not see too many images of suffering bodies on the screen. But we do see too many nameless bodies, too many bodies incapable of returning the gaze that we direct at them, too many bodies that are an object of speech without themselves having a chance to speak.”

76 Days, in my view, accumulates more such nameless, voiceless bodies without a greater trade-off. Given how timely the film strives to be, perhaps rather than watching it as a documentary film with grand artistic ambitions, it is more appropriate to think of it as the visual equivalent of a news report, as journalism. It reveals, observes, and informs – to a certain extent. That’s that.