Documentary gives rare look into Wuhan hospitals, co-director talks China's handling of pandemic

Nearly a year after the World Health Organization formally declared the coronavirus a pandemic, documentary filmmaker Hao Wu joins "CBS This Morning" to discuss the anniversary through the lens of his latest feature, "76 Days." The documentary, set in Wuhan, tells the stories of health care workers and patients who struggled during the city's 76-day lockdown.

Video Transcript

TONY DOKOUPIL: As we approach one year since the official start of the pandemic, there are still many unanswered questions about the coronavirus. Among them, China's handling of the virus at its supposed origin, Wuhan. The city reported its first known case back in December, 2019, and then Wuhan went into a strict lockdown between January and April of 2020. With a population greater than that of New York City, it was one of the largest quarantines in history.

The documentary "76 Days"-- shortlisted for an Oscar-- tells the stories of health care workers and patients in four Wuhan hospitals at the brink of capacity with too many patients showing up all at once.

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"76 Days" is available on Paramount Plus, the Viacom CBS streaming service. And co-director, writer, and producer Hao Wu joins us now.

Hao, good morning to you. This is an extraordinary documentary. There are no sit-down interviews. There's no TV news footage brought in. It is all propulsive on-the-scene coverage from two anonymous reporters who somehow got their way into these four hospitals there in Wuhan. When you were taking in the footage as director, was there a moment when you thought to yourself, first of all, whoa, this is a big deal, and second of all, it's going to go way beyond Wuhan?

HAO WU: I think I got the first batch of footage come in-- I was in New York while my co-directors were filming in Wuhan. I remember in mid-February, I got the first batch of footage. I watched it. I was immediately blown away because up to that point, I had read so much about what was happening in Wuhan, mostly print media, news media. But I had never had such a-- sort of like on the wall, a "fly on the wall" evidence to see what's happening on the front line.

So it was really extremely moving and harrowing at the same time. And I immediately realized I needed to work with these two to work on the film.

TONY DOKOUPIL: So here in the US, we always hear about restrictions in China-- the government cracking down on journalists, people not getting access. And then here, this documentary has extraordinary access. How were your two anonymous reporters on the ground able to obtain it?

HAO WU: My co-director, Weixi Chen, he's a video reporter for "Esquire China," but he wasn't actually sent by "Esquire" to cover the beat. He's also an aspiring documentary filmmaker himself. So as soon as he learned about the Wuhan lockdown, he just went down there. But he was turned away by four different hospitals before he found, through a personal connection, to embed himself with a medical team that was being sent from elsewhere in China to support a local hospital. And the local hospital, seeing him arriving together with medical team, for a while they thought he was working for the medical team. That's how he got access.

And with my other co-director, anonymous, he's a photojournalist for a local newspaper. And he was basically assigned to take photos for their print news stories. That's how he gained access.

TONY DOKOUPIL: That's amazing. Politics-- global politics, American politics, Chinese politics-- are kind of outside the purview of the footage, except for one moment on the street where you can hear a loudspeaker say, people shouldn't believe rumors. We have to pull together as a collective.

Given that politics is put aside in this, when you were editing it, you had to consider the bigger picture. And I'm curious. The president of China praises the country's handling of the pandemic there. Would you agree?

HAO WU: I think both country, there are some things that the government did right and also something lacking in their COVID-19 response. That's not just happening in China, but also here as well. Because I was in New York witnessing how the US completely failed in its early response to COVID-19 and the panic it was causing among the population here in New York City.

But as I was making this film, I think truly you just want to value the rare-- the raw footage coming from the front line and also the extremely human story, individual human story that's captured in their footage. And the same time, I just feel like right now, since we're are still living through the pandemic, it's a little bit too early to draw any conclusion in terms of whether any government did what right.

TONY DOKOUPIL: Well, Hao Wu, it's extraordinary footage captured under extraordinary risk from two collaborators in Wuhan, China. Thank you very much for bringing it to us. It's a great documentary, and we appreciate you being on this morning.

As we mentioned, you can watch "76 Days" on the new Viacom CBS streaming service. It is called Paramount Plus.