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‘Night of Nights’ Review: A Pandemic Documentary That Plays Like a Horror Movie

“Night of Nights” throws the audience immediately into the action. A sick man in a wheelchair and his companion are stopped outside a hospital by a security guard. All three men are masked and speaking Chinese. He urgently needs a catheter but is treated with suspicion and without courtesy, a negative COVID test is demanded and the patient is turned away because they can’t provide one. It becomes apparent that this documentary chronicles the early days of the pandemic — and the accompanying existential chaos and horror. It has a no-frills approach, showing what the filmmakers could capture at that time of utter confusion.

This film has a cloud of secrecy around it for obvious security purposes. No information is available about how and when exactly it was shot. The synopsis provided by the CPH:DOX festival, where it world premiered, doesn’t even specify the setting; it just says “two Asian megacities.” In the film itself they are revealed to be Wuhan and Shanghai, but only when someone mentions those names deep into the film. The filmmaker(s) is credited as both “Anonymous” and “Truman,” obviously a pseudonym. While it does not indict the Chinese government methods per se, it’s definitely not a flattering account.

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With a haunting eerie quality, this documentary does not follow any specific person or subject, just COVID and its repercussions. As the camera captures empty cities, military personnel marching and health workers in full white hazmat suits, everyone wearing masks and gloves, the collective trauma of the pandemic is rendered like a horror film. The audience relives how humanity and compassion were stripped away, as life became about recording names, taking body temperatures, panic and isolation.

The filmmakers allow the scenes time to build, most telling a complete story. Consider such startling yet completely plausible scenarios: a rude emergency doctor chastising a patient for not revealing their status, health workers knocking on doors and forcefully spraying people with disinfectant as if they were insects. The camera rolls in the midst of all this chaos, capturing it in intimate ways. It doesn’t show just what’s happening but also the debilitating fear that has taken hold of everyone.

Later the narrative shifts from observational to interviewing witnesses, from Wuhan to Shanghai. The filmmakers capture people living on the streets in makeshift tents, ostracized by family and neighbors for testing positive. They talk about being unable to make a living, about being taken advantage of by mercenaries when trying to secure food and other necessities. The full horrific ramifications of this second phase of the pandemic are uncovered. Some blame the government, some seem resigned to this unfathomable fate. “Night of Nights” unrelentingly conveys this living nightmare with unvarnished honesty.

As a political statement, “Night of Nights” offers different avenues for interpretation. While it nevers directly implicates any entity, it functions as a record of failure of both people and organizations to deal empathetically with this calamity. A comparison of the differences in how Americans and Chinese people reacted to the restrictions imposed raises interesting questions. Are the people praising the Chinese reaction, especially that of the state, doing it out of conviction or just reiterating propaganda? Perhaps the biggest indictment of China comes from the secrecy surrounding who the filmmakers are and how they made this movie. The film becomes a document recording not just fear of a deathly disease but also the filmmakers’ fear for their lives and for the people whose stories they are telling.

“Night of Nights” is documentary filmmaking at its most raw. A journalistic endeavor that’s also concerned with human attitudes, it captures not just the facts but also the experience. The camerawork might be simple, without much care about how it looks, but it has texture, capturing pain, bewilderment, fear and ultimately survival.

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