For producer Jean Tsien, one moment in particular stands out.
“The first scene…with the nurse [who] lost her father…That just hit me so hard,” Tsien said during Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted awards-season event. “For anyone to say goodbye to your loved one and to see—the father’s five feet away and you cannot even say goodbye. That was the most heart-wrenching scene I’ve ever seen I think in my entire career.”
Wu, who is based in New York, happened to be visiting Shanghai when the lockdown sealed off Wuhan. He wasn’t permitted to enter Wuhan himself, so he sought out potential partners on site who could capture what was happening.
“The first thing I did was reaching out to filmmakers and reporters who had started covering the lockdown in Wuhan…I got introduced to over a dozen filmmakers filming on the ground. That’s how I met my two eventual collaborators,” Wu said during the virtual panel. “As soon as I saw the footage from these two filmmakers I was immediately shaken because I feel like there’s so much raw emotional power in their footage that kind of transported me right to the eye of the storm.”
Wu’s original intent was to make an investigative film about the pandemic outbreak and what went wrong in China. But he said watching countries everywhere struggle to deal with the novel coronavirus convinced him another approach was in order—a purely observational one.
“I feel like we really need to value the uniqueness in the footage we have access to and try to tell the story through our footage,” he recalled thinking, “rather than trying to impose a political dimension onto the storytelling.”
A distributor came on board early to back the film, then dropped out. MTV Documentary Films later stepped in, seeing the importance of the project. Their belief was validated when 76 Days went on to win with multiple awards and a spot on the Oscar documentary shortlist.
Tsien, too, kept the faith through thick and thin. She said, “I just knew the story needs to be told.”
Check out the panel video above.