★★★★☆

The coronavirus and its consequences have already become the subject of cinema. Aside from last year’s lockdown movies like Host and Songbird, Alex Gibney released his j’accuse against the Trump administration’s response in the form of Totally Under Control.

In contrast, 76 Days focuses on the beginning of the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Filming in four hospitals, Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and a fellow filmmaker who has chosen to remain anonymous have produced a fly on the wall account of the ICUs and hospital corridors as the nurses and doctors desperately try to deal with a disease which is quickly overpowering their resources and manpower.

Right at the very beginning of the film we see a carer dressed in full PPE and completely distraught as her father dies in the other room. While his body is bagged and wheeled away, she breaks down and her colleagues attempt to console her. Even so, her boss is mindful to remind her they all have to work that afternoon. It is a heartbreaking moment and has the immediate effect of showing that the lines are blurred between the healthcare professionals and their patients. The doctors and nurses struggle to provide care, but they also just struggle to stay on their feet. Many is the moment when an exhausted member of staff can be seen slumped in the corridor, catching some much needed sleep.

As the first patients begin to arrive a scene that looks like a zombie movie plays out. The patients gather banging on the door and seeking admittance and treatment. The ward will only take fifty of them. From the chaotic and confusing scenes, stories, however, begin to emerge. And even through the PPE and the intubations, we can discern characters. There’s “granddad”, a Party member and fisherman who is querrellous and impatient to go home.

It turns out he’s also suffering from dementia, something that becomes painfully evident as he wanders the hospital looking for a way out. On the other end of the age spectrum, a COVID positive mother gives birth to a daughter that the nurses nickname “Little Penguin” and who must be treated separately. An old couple are also separated and treated in different rooms, concerned for each other even as they both fall increasingly sick.

Meanwhile, the disease takes its toll and personal items of the deceased – cell phones and identity cards – are collected in a plastic container. One nurse is charged with contacting the families and returning the items, which she does with tact and sympathy. Outside the streets are deserted and those lucky enough to be discharged are thoroughly disinfected before being sent to hotels to quarantine. The doctors and nurses are thanked by the survivors and family members. One of them declared “You are all charging forward, facing the enemy fire.”

Volunteers have also turned up, declaring it their “Hero’s dream”. It almost feels like this could be propaganda if it wasn’t for the unvarnished view we get of the health system with sellotape and plastic bags used to supplement the PPE and the fact that one of the filmmakers prefers not to put their name on the film publicly. Maybe to just not be cynical for a moment, people are capable of great heroism.

In fact, the paradox of the work is that even though these shrouded figures are almost comical, shuffling around in their plastic gowns, hoods, masks and bagged feet (Little Penguins themselves!): their humanity and heroism shines through. One of them holds an old woman’s hand and assures her that though her family cannot visit her, “We’re your family now, Auntie”.

For all our own “clapping for carers”, in the UK there has been a squeamishness about actually seeing what is going on in our hospitals: a reluctance to confront the actual physical suffering and death that goes with the pandemic. In this way, the human cost of the pandemic has been statistical, a subject of graphs and tea time press conferences, if it hasn’t touched you directly. 76 Days breaks through all of that. It shows the desperation, the pain and the suffering, but it also reveals the spirit and fortitude of those tasked with caring for the sick.

76 Days is available to stream now on Dogwoof On Demand. watch.dogwoof.com

John Bleasdale | @drjonty