On January 23, the day the Chinese central government locked down Wuhan, the filmmaker Hao Wu flew from New York City to Shanghai to celebrate Lunar New Year with his parents. Hundreds of miles away from the world’s first known Covid-19 outbreak, Shanghai residents were staying in. Even without a formal lockdown, gatherings were canceled. The city streets were empty. It was like living in the movie Contagion, Wu recalled.

Like many Chinese at the time, Wu, a Chengdu native, fumed over the initial coverup of the coronavirus and agonized over the dire situation. In Wuhan, Covid-19 patients overwhelmed hospitals, and many who couldn’t get treated died in their homes. After he returned to the United States in early February, Wu started talking to filmmakers in China, hoping to collaborate on a documentary about the crisis. A month later, he found his codirectors, Weixi Chen and another journalist who chose to remain anonymous. The pair had filmed inside Wuhan hospitals and shared their footage with Wu.

As spring wore on, coronavirus cases in the United States began to skyrocket, and the pandemic strained already tense US-China relations. Trump hurled racist epithets like “Chinese Virus” and “kung flu.” China pushed back, fueling nationalistic sentiments. Given the travel restrictions in both countries, Wu gave up on his plan to return to China and sneak into Wuhan. Fearing professional and personal repercussions, his codirectors considered dropping out from the collaboration.

But eventually, Wu convinced them to keep working with him. The three directors assembled an incredible film, 76 Days, which takes audiences inside Wuhan during the lockdown. It bears witness to the chaos and order, death and birth, desperation and hope, suffering and compassion, farewells and reunions in the first days of the pandemic. So far, many critics have celebrated the candid shots showing raw, complex emotions, while others have faulted the film for not denouncing the local officials who initially concealed the outbreak from the public.

The documentary is set to be released in virtual theaters across the United States on December 4. I spoke with Hao Wu about the art and politics of his film.

—Shen Lu

Shen Lu: I shed a lot of tears while watching the film, but I also felt uplifted and hopeful at times. There were light moments that really made me smile. What was your first reaction when you saw the footage?

Hao Wu: When I saw the footage, that was the first time when I felt like Covid was real, and immediately I realized that this was rare. Because I’d talked to filmmakers elsewhere, I was pretty sure they didn’t have footage like that. I hadn’t seen anything like that on television outside of China.

SL: The outbreak in Wuhan evolved into a global pandemic, and starting March, Donald Trump publicly referred to Covid-19 as “Chinese Virus.” And China became defensive. The pandemic by then had become politicized. How did that affect your film?

HW: Because of the geopolitical tensions, China was really tightening control of any mainstream news reporting. I heard about filmmakers on the ground who were visited by state security agents. So my two codirectors were like, “No. We can’t collaborate with you.”

I don’t know whether the government orchestrated this. Maybe the government encouraged this—but my sense is that nationalistic Internet trolls in China grabbed on to the fact that Fang Fang’s book, Wuhan Diary, would be published in English first overseas. And then they accused Fang Fang of trying to use the Wuhan tragic stories for personal gains, trying to sell out China’s stories to the West. And Anonymous [one of the codirectors] was, first of all, afraid of how the government was going to treat unauthorized film production. Secondly, he was afraid of Internet trolls going after him. He works for a state news outlet; the stakes are a lot higher. So he stopped working with me.

SL: But he’d shared the footage with you. Obviously, he wanted to get the story out?

HW: Yes. That was his original intention, the reason he filmed it. I’d assured him that before I did anything with them, I’d definitely sign a legal agreement with him. And he said, “I don’t care about agreement. Just take it.” But then in late March, he was like, “You can’t use the footage. You’re going to get me in trouble.”

So basically, by the end of March, I had nothing. I thought, “Maybe I should just try to find out, first of all, if there’s a film in the footage they shared with me, and secondly, if there’s a film, maybe I can try to assemble a film quickly. If I show them where I wanted to take the film, maybe they’d agree with me and license the footage to me.”

Once I showed my rough assembly to the two codirectors, they saw where I wanted to go with the film, which was in line with their own thinking about the stories they’d captured. So they agreed to license their footage to me. I guess to some degree, they, especially Anonymous, took pity on me because they saw how much I wanted to finish the film. I’d spent months editing with no prior assurance from them about the license.

SL: You were angry at the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic, and you thought of doing a story to uncover the delay in their response. How did it end up being a documentary about health care workers and Covid patients?

HW: In the beginning, I wanted to find out what happened. But really quickly, you realize that it’s easier to do an investigative print story because you can grant anonymity. During Wuhan’s lockdown, it was difficult to travel from place to place. With a camera, you were always attracting attention. And also the people, if you found them, that means they’d already been known because they’d given interviews to the press, or maybe they were too afraid to talk on camera.

We filmed two whistleblower doctors. They were extensively interviewed by both the domestic press and international press. So I was like, “If I talk to these people, I’m just gonna be basically regurgitating what’s already been covered in the news media. So what more can I bring to the understanding of this?” We interviewed a guy who was trying to sue the government because his father contracted Covid in the hospital and later passed away. But we decided later not to use the three conservations. One reason was that by the time we got access to them, it wasn’t great access. The interviews were not compelling. And then, secondly, by the time we reached the whistleblower doctors, it was almost late February, early March; the hospital they work for was calm already. There was no sense of urgency in the hospital anymore. Thirdly, it didn’t jibe with the other footage from my codirectors, because their footage was so raw, so observational, so immediate that you feel like you were there. The other footage didn’t fit stylistically.

SL: Did the way the US handled the pandemic affect your approach to the film at all?

HW: As I saw the US, Italy, Spain, and the UK mismanaging the pandemic response, I started thinking, “Wait, we were so angry at the Chinese government, but then all the governments were faced with the unknown and didn’t know the best way to respond to it.” So in late March, early April, I still felt like China’s response was too draconian. Through my codirectors in China, I was talking to cancer patients who couldn’t get cancer treatment because the hospitals were overwhelmed. I was also trying to get access to AIDS patients who couldn’t get HIV medications. These were the typical news stories that were coming out of China. But I was slowly becoming more suspicious and thought to myself: “What if what China’s doing is the right way to do it?” At the time, I wasn’t sure whether what China was doing was the right or wrong way. I decided it was not the right time for me to put a lot of critical commentary in the film, because we were living through it. It was too early; that’s something we need to do maybe a year or two years from now when we look back.

SL: How did you decide on the main characters and the arc of the documentary?

HW: When I started to edit, I was simply trying to tell a purely objective, observational piece. But then as I was editing, I guess it was fitting to what emotional states I was living through at that time. I was separated from my parents. I didn’t know when they’d be able to see their grandchildren [they both have late-stage cancer]. I was feeling guilty about not being able to say goodbye to my grandpa [who died in March]. I was confused about how to feel about all of this. I read a lot about past pandemics, which made me feel sad. In every pandemic, when people got scared, they tried to assign blame. They found scapegoats. They got angry at each other. The ugliest side of humanity always came out. So I guess for me, I was looking subconsciously for the little moments of kindness, of how people reach out to help each other. I guess I needed that to live through that emotional state I was in at that moment.

SL: Did you second guess your choice of placing ordinary people front and center?

HW: Once I finished this film, I did a test screening with some friends. They were like, “You know, China really had this under control. And the medical workers really showed a lot of care to patients.” Then I called my codirectors and asked, “Is that true? Did it really happen in the hospital?” Because I didn’t want my piece to be a propaganda piece for the government. My codirector told me, “Yes, most of the medical teams on the front line did show a lot of care to their patients. They were seriously fighting on the front line, like soldiers.” So that made me feel more comfortable, because it was an accurate portrayal of what happened.

SL: So you were afraid that if you showed the kindness and care of Chinese health care workers, critics would say it’s not critical of the Chinese government. At the same time, you were concerned this portrayal would be used as propaganda by the Chinese government. How do you navigate the increasingly fraught US-China relationship as a Chinese American filmmaker who has one foot in the US and the other in China?

HW: It is a dilemma. I do feel that as a Chinese filmmaker, to touch anything about China right now is tricky. If it’s too critical of China, the government censors will keep it outside of China. I don’t intend to see the distribution of my film in China, so I don’t have to deal with the censors. But Chinese intellectuals, the maozuo [Maoist leftists], would accuse me of selling out China or trying to use the Western perspective to misconstrue what’s happening. And then if you are not critical enough, people here would accuse me of something.

And so that’s part of the reason why I usually shy away from news topics. Because for me, as a filmmaker, my job is to tell a human story. I firmly belong to the camp that if you want to understand the world, you have to understand the human individuals first. And any social or geopolitical power struggle should stay in the background. I get the criticism [of my film]. The only thing I will say is that, first of all, you can’t require me to be newsy. That’s not the film I would like to make. And secondly, I can’t control how you perceive my film. I can only stay truthful to my own personal integrity and my own creative vision, and leave the judgment to the viewers.

SL: As a Chinese journalist covering China in the US, I’m often frustrated by that simplistic narrative about China. It seems the mainstream audience’s expectation is such that if a story is about China, it has to be about the government or Party practices. Does this frustrate you?

HW: Yes, it frustrates me. Here in the US, we always think we know China because we know what the Party is doing or what the government’s doing. But we really don’t know China, because we don’t know Chinese people. We’re confusing these two things all the time. And we have limited interest in understanding the people. We tend to forget that the people on the ground have agency, within whatever social or political structure, to choose to be nice to each other. They can choose to report on each other or not report on each other. I think the thing about othering is that we strip the entire population of agency.

I used to be really explicit and say, “I just want to find a complex human story to dispel this tendency of paying little attention to people.” But now I’ve realized you cannot change how they view China. But if you tell really strong human stories, you can move them. That’s the power of art. But I doubt they will change their point of view on things. So I’ve given up trying to have that as my stated goal. The only thing we can do is to make our work even better.

SL: What do you want the audience to take away from 76 Days?

HW: If my film can make Americans understand Chinese people more, [I’ll call it a success]. Because those are the people I see every time I go back to China. I don’t meet CCP [Chinese Communist Party] or government officials; I meet people on the street. Those people can be manipulative. They can take advantage of you. But they can also be kind. So, if we can just remind people to be patient—when you’re watching this film, don’t come with preconceived notions—try to see Chinese people, you know, they can be as kind as people here. I guess that’s all I can hope for.