During the outbreak of the pandemic, the director began to think about this project, with the help of two collaborators who had full access to hospitals in Wuhan to make a documentary that would show the human aspects of this drama. The film, after a troubled genesis due to the pandemic and the international situation, has enjoyed great success at international film festivals premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
Where were you, when the outbreak occurred in Wuhan, and how did you decide to make a documentary about COVID-19?
I was in Shanghai, visiting my parents and my sister’s family for Chinese New Year. The day I flew to Shanghai, the government put Wuhan under lockdown. So I was in Shanghai the first 10 days of the lockdown myself.
Usually as a filmmaker this type of subject matter, I would normally not approach because my past films are very character-driven. I don’t like to do newsy topics because I wonder, what more can I bring to a subject if it’s been well reported by news media. When I was in Shanghai, because Wuhan was put under lockdown, the rest of China went into shutdown as well. Seeing the entire city completely empty, it was like an apocalyptic movie. So it was an eerie experience. Giving that time all we could do was staying indoors and scrolling through social media, trying to understand what was happening. And noticing what was the dire situation in the early days, I was very angry just like many other Chinese people I knew at that time. So when I came back to the US in early February, a US network asked me if I wanted to make a film about this outbreak, I immediately said yes. Later on, the US network dropped out of the project, and I continued independently.
How did you select your collaborators in Wuhan? Was it difficult to stay in touch?
As soon as I started researching this film, I talked to filmmaker and reporter friends, I was introduced to filmmakers and reporters who had already started filming in Wuhan. I started talking to them online and they passed some footage to me of what they’ve been filming. I talked to over a dozen before I saw the footage from my eventual collaborators. As soon as I saw the footage, I was like, wow, this footage is so unique and so emotional. And so real. I started talking to them about collaborating. Throughout the collaboration during the production, basically every day after filming, they uploaded the footage using a cloud service in China. Since I had their logins I would download the footage in New York as soon as they become available. And once I review this footage, I will have a conversation with them.
How did they gain access to hospitals in Wuhan?
During the lockdown, access to the hospital was limited to medical workers, patients, and reporters. Because both of my two collaborators are reporters in China, Weixi Chen was a video reporter for Esquire China, and the anonymous is a photojournalist working for a local newspaper. Especially in the early days of the lockdown, access to the hospital was granted by each individual hospital. Therefore it was impossible to access some hospitals, like the hospital of Dr. Li Wenlaing, who was one of the early whistleblowers and later passed away from contracting COVID on his job. So this hospital, nobody could get inside. But with other hospitals, as long as the hospital chief agreed to let you in, you could potentially just get inside if you were a reporter. They just apply to the hospital, saying “we want to do the reporting here”. Once we’re inside, we’ll have the time or energy to watch over your shoulder. So they were just like embedded inside of the hospital, they could just film as much as they want.
Can you tell us why one of the directors decided to be Anonymous?
Because while we were making this film, even though doing editing, it became clear to us we wanted to make it very human, just to tell the human stories on the front line rather than making it political. But because COVID-19 has become such a sensitive geopolitical news topic, and the way we edited our film, the way we tell our stories, first of all, we’re not exactly sure how the government in China would respond to that. Secondly, on the Chinese internet, there are now more and more very nationalistic internet trolls, who attack anybody they perceived to be portraying China in a negative light. For my co-director, we credited him because he’s an aspiring filmmaker. He wants to make more films. So he wanted to get properly credited on this film. And he also lives in Beijing, he’s less afraid, while anonymous because he’s a local reporter based in Wuhan who has only worked for state-owned companies before, he was kind of afraid of losing his job, especially he’s afraid of the threats of the internet trolls.
How did you choose the main characters?
During production, the only person we know who would become a main character is an old grandpa who suffered from dementia. We didn’t know which one will be main character, or supporting character until I started editing the film, because when they were filming in the hospital, it was very chaotic. There were so many people coming and going and during the production, we actually didn’t have much idea about who might be the main characters. Beginning with post-production, for a period of time, we thought maybe nobody will be the main character, but everybody will be. The film is a portrait of the people on the frontline. But then later on gradually during post-production, during editing, some people’s story reappears, more frequently than others. So that’s why you saw the female head nurse who wants to return the personal effects of the death to their families, and also to the male nurse who was really attentive to the patient’s care. Those characters gradually emerged during editing.
Why did the two video makers from Wuhan abandon the project? How did you react? How did you manage to overcome the situation?
In March, the Trump administration struggling to contain the outbreak, started calling the virus the China virus, the Wuhan virus, blaming China, and China started to get really defensive and aggressive. China started tightly controlling the narrative. And so my two co-directors at that time became understandably nervous. They were also nervous because we had never collaborated before, we actually never met before. I’ve only talked to them over the internet. And I’m an independent filmmaker based in New York. There was just too much risk. So, to me, it was really devastating because I have spent so much time working with them, and I have thought so much about this project. My grandpa passed away in early March from cancer, so I wasn’t able to go back to say goodbye to him, because of the travel restriction between the US and China. I just felt like I was being impacted by this COVID-19, I really wanted to, you know, make a film about this. So in the end, what I did was starting looking through the footage, trying to build a film together, and quickly cut out a rough assembly, as I showed it to my co-directors to show them that my creative intentions, were in line with theirs. My editing style kind of follow the lead of their filming style. So as soon after they watched my rough guide, they understood that our creative visions were pretty much in sync.
The documentary is dedicated to the medical staff around the world. What do you think about the wave of conspiracy theories that have swept Western social media? What is the source of this disbelief in what happens on the front lines?
I spent a lot of time reading about past pandemics and in any pandemic, anytime, when catastrophes like this happen, it’s in human nature to assign blame to some other people. We have spent so much time reading news about statistics and numbers, in some ways, I feel like a lot of people are becoming desensitized. And, also, because of the political divide in many different countries, a lot of people focused their energy and attention on the politics and the numbers around the pandemic, instead of paying more attention to the human tragedies, the human cost. I really am not in a position to comment on why they believe in these conspiracies or what they believe, but I guess it’s human nature. When something like this happens, there will always be conspiracy theories.
What is your next project?
I’m developing a few projects, both documentary, and scripted projects at this time. It’s hard to travel around in the US to research documentaries because of COVID-19. One of the things I’m working on is about some Asian Americans suing Harvard University for alleged discrimination, and its admission process, and this lawsuit may go to the Supreme Court later this year. I’m in early production. But like I said earlier, it is really difficult to do filming in this environment.
Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly called coronavirus China flu, Wuhan virus, etc. Over the year, we have seen an escalation of racist incidents, often including violent ones, against citizens who appeared to be Asian. How did this atmosphere influence the making of the documentary?
I think you watched my past films, you know my work, my goal is to tell the complexity of China not to follow some established narratives. By focusing on the human stories, by portraying Chinese people as full human beings, making tough decisions on the front lines, and ready to help each other, I guess that’s my little way of combating this prevailing narrative. You know, whenever we think about COVID and China right now, it’s about the criticism about its early mishandling, or the early censorship of the information there. I’m not saying those stories are not true, but that’s not the whole picture. So I guess the story we were narrating in 76 days, is trying to bring humanity back to the people showing how resilient, and how courageous they are when they try to survive the long term.