For a film that almost didn’t get made, 76 Days has racked up an impressive number of awards.
The documentary directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and a Chinese filmmaker who remains anonymous, and produced by Wu and Jean Tsien, earned a spot on the Oscar shortlist earlier this year, claimed the Audience Award at AFI Fest, and in June won a prestigious Peabody Award. The Peabody committee praised the film for its humanistic approach, immersing viewers within hospitals in Wuhan, China as that city implemented an emergency lockdown in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“For a film that begins with a wailing nurse shouting out for her dying father,” the committee wrote, “and ends with the screeching of city air raid sirens to honor those who died in the coronavirus pandemic, 76 Days is yet a hopeful film that does more than just document the beginning of the global pandemic in the city in which virus cases were first reported. It is a film about resilience, compassion, empathy, improvisation, the power of human touch and caring hearts as much as it is about panic, suffering, and indiscriminate victims.”
The latest honor for the documentary is an Emmy nomination for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, arguably the most prestigious of the TV Academy’s nonfiction categories.
“I’ve been working in documentary for almost 40 years as an editor,” Tsien tells Deadline, “and I’ve edited several films that won the primetime Emmys, but I knew I could never touch that statue, so when I heard the news, as a first time producer, I was over the moon… I was really emotional.”
Wu, a New York-based filmmaker who was born in China, was visiting his family back in China, accompanied by his five-year-old kids, when the Emmy nominations were announced. At the time, Wu and youngsters were in the midst of a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
“I was really stressed out, dealing with two kids in a single hotel room, without ever being able to step out of the hotel room,” Wu recalls. “So I completely forgot the day that the news was coming out. I remember I had just put my kids down. I was trying to get some work done, and then my phone started beeping. People started texting me from Jean, from MTV Documentary Films. It took me completely by surprise, precisely because I wasn’t really looking forward to it at all.”
Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking is the only juried documentary award at the Emmys. This year, only three films were nominated alongside 76 Days: Dick Johnson Is Dead, directed and produced by Kirsten Johnson and produced by Marilyn Ness and Katy Chevigny, and Welcome To Chechnya, directed and produced by David France and produced by Alice Henty, Joy Tomchin, Askold Kurov, and Igor Myakotin. Aspirants in the category have to submit an essay explaining why their film should be considered for Exceptional Merit.
“I explained, first of all, the origin story of the film,” Wu says of his essay. “How challenging it was to get the production going. What kind of precautions Jean and I both took in order to protect our identity and knowledge of this project from the very beginning, because we didn’t know how the Chinese government would react to a film like this.”
The origin story, in fact, is almost as dramatic as the scenes captured in the documentary. Wu was visiting Shanghai when Wuhan went into lockdown in January 2020. Unable to enter the city himself, he eventually made contact with cinematographers inside Wuhan who could film what was going on.
“I picked them out after having talked to over a dozen filmmakers precisely because I saw in the footage their empathy and compassion for the subjects in front of the camera,” Wu notes. “The three of us, we collaborated over the internet because I was in New York, they were filming in Wuhan. Every day after their filming they uploaded their rushes onto the cloud.”
But the network that originally backed the project suddenly decided to bail (MTV Documentary later came on board, a decision validated in earning its first Emmy nomination in nonfiction). And later Wu’s two directors in China got cold feet, after the Chinese government started to tightly control the narrative about the coronavirus and its mysterious origins.
“They stopped collaborating with me because they just didn’t want to get into trouble,” Wu remembers. “At that time, I basically had no film. I didn’t know what to do.”
“We didn’t know [if] we can pull this off, but we knew the film needs to be made,” Tsien comments. “We needed to keep a record of this year.”
Wu eventually got his co-directors back in the fold. During his return trip to China in June, he got together with them face-to-face for the first time.
“I traveled to Beijing to meet with my co-director, Weixi Chen, and later I traveled to Wuhan to meet my other co-director, ‘Anonymous,’” Wu says. “We saw each other, we hugged each other, and we were joking that it’s like a longtime internet dating. We finally got to meet in person.”
Wu continues, “My co-director, Anonymous, actually took me to visit all the sites where he filmed. It was quite emotional for me to be there… Standing in front of those sites, those hospitals, those streets. Life had come back to normal in Wuhan, and people were going about their business as normal.”
But earlier this month, the Chinese government again locked down parts of Wuhan, in response to the threat from the Delta variant. In the United States and around the world, heroic medical staff—the same kind seen in 76 Days battling the pandemic in its beginning stages—are coping with a surge of very ill patients filling intensive care units.
“A year later, we are still in the Covid pandemic,” Tsien affirms. “I hope the film really just brings the message out—until the world, every country, every person in every country, is vaccinated—we are still at risk.”