The relationship between the first scene of the Oscars-shortlisted (should’ve been Oscar-nominated) 76 Days and the rest of the documentary is the art of juxtaposition.
Initially, I expected the juxtaposition would be one of sheer grief; we start by witnessing Covid’s wrath on the most personal level — a despondent nurse fighting to be, but being kept from, her dad’s death bed — which I figured would then zoom out into more of a coldly-clinical, fact-forward overview of Covid’s spread and the subsequent medical response around Wuhan hospitals in January 2020. This structure would’ve positioned the introduction as a reminder of the most profound sadness — that of a lost loved one — which has gone too overlooked in the chaos of the last year; focusing on how to stop the deaths from piling up can preclude us from sufficiently mourning who’s already passed.
And yet, 76 Days remains locked-in on the hospitals, specifically their staffs and patients. The actual juxtaposition of the first scene is one of proximal grief; though there are displays of grief throughout the documentary, they’re dislocated, both familially and physically. It might look unnatural — because it is — but the nurse actually gets a lot closer to the natural order of dying than everyone we witness after her; she’s only feet away from her ailing father when he goes, and at least she’s afforded the opportunity to say goodbye to his body.
Though it definitely feels like a curse for her at the time — because, again, it is — her plight becomes a visual representation of what’s to come for all those suffering through Covid: how the virus spatially divides loved ones in their hour of greatest need; almost every scene after the first shows a variation of this theme.
The opening scene introduces Covid’s forced detachment of families, and only in hindsight do we realize she’s less detached than everyone who endures similar fates throughout the rest of the documentary; at least she’s allowed in the building. A daughter fighting through a door to see her father, and then watching his body roll by, is closer than the subsequent families can come; it’s a proximal, physical immediacy that must be immediately left by the wayside for larger, no less immediate reasons.
The last year has adhered to this inverse logic: “being there” for each other entailed physically not being in each other’s presence. Our civic duty as members of a societal community meant limiting our interactions with that community. 76 Days immerses us in this experience, AND highlights two of the ways we bridged this separation: technology and healthcare workers.
Digital devices allowed us to stay in contact with each other as a desperately necessary — but still corporeally limited — means of communication. Though a godsend, they simply could not replace the real thing. When these technological artifacts of the deceased are returned to their relatives in the documentary’s concluding moments, they elicit a weird jumble of emotions. Yes, they were there for us when we needed them, but they still feel like paltry substitutes for what could’ve been. And yet, it’s meaningful to receive the physical remnants of the dead’s final corporeal moments; these artifacts were their only lifelines to the outside world, and even in death, they still connect the survivors to the deceased.
But the dying’s true lifelines were the predominantly faceless (masks will do that) and nameless hospital workers who provided familial comfort for the dying, all while maintaining their medicinal responsibilities; this is an evergreen duty for healthcare specialists, and 76 Days plunges us into the Covid-specific nature of this universal arrangement.
On a macro level, 76 Days chronicles how humanity responded to Covid’s disruption of the aforementioned natural order of death; how the documentary’s subjects handle this forced separation becomes a microcosm of how the world handled it, good and bad.
It’s a defining feature of 76 Days, a defining feature of Covid, and a defining feature of 2020. If the Oscars can be a time capsule of the year that was, then this sort of ode to the healthcare sector is as relevantly worthy of a nomination as any other submission this year.