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(The 2020 Toronto International Film Festival or, TIFF, ran September 10-20 online. Although Hammer to Nail wasn’t granted access to a press pass, we still have been running as much coverage as possible thanks to filmmakers and PR companies who want to see their films reviewed and noticed. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

A remarkable moving-image document that takes us into the heart of our current global COVID-19 crisis, the new 76 Days is cinéma vérité at its observational best, following healthcare workers and their patients in Wuhan, China (where the first known outbreak occurred), from January 23 to April 8, 2020 – the 76 days of the title – as they confront the medical unknown. Whatever one’s feelings about the origins of the disease and what could/should have been done differently from the start, the on-camera subjects have nothing to do with any of that. They are just human beings, struggling to understand what is happening, how to protect themselves, and how to save those in their charge.

We stay embedded with them as they navigate the trauma of isolation, sickness and fear, some surviving, others not, until the disaster abates. They are our surrogates, and may those of us lucky enough to have so far avoided infection come no closer to it than this movie. There are three directors credited, one of them anonymously, and two are the Chinese journalists who were granted, much to the viewer’s benefit, what appears to be fairly comprehensive access to not only the ICU (Intensive Care Unit), but at one point the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), since a pregnant mother who has tested positive for the coronavirus gives birth, early on. Their footage has been assembled by the third director, Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire), who crafts from the raw material, in consultation with his colleagues, a narrative of initial panic that leads to even more panic before settling into a mere prolonged acute anxiety.

Though we do not have comparable movies from our North American hospitals, no doubt there are similarities, down to the folks who don’t want to wear masks (or wear them improperly). It is this universality of experience that makes of 76 Days such a vital work. We can all see ourselves in the doctors, nurses and ordinary citizens who endeavor to make sense of a brand-new fatal scourge. Beyond the deaths, themselves, perhaps the most heartbreaking scenes come towards the end, when the poor Head ICU Nurse must call, and meet with, the families of the deceased, handing-off what personal effects remain. Life may go on, but certainly not for all.

And yet there are moments of levity and joy, as well, whether they be of a cranky old fisherman who creates havoc (though of the mostly funny variety) by wandering the corridors of his ward, maskless, complaining that he is a prisoner, to the reunion of parents and baby once all are recovered. These help the lighten the mood when at other times we watch as some people pass away. Always, there is raw humanity on display, the stuff of life, death…and movies. This one will sear into your brain and remain with you long afterwards. Maybe even more than 76 days …

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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