Sundance 2021 – In the Same Breath

Nanfu Wang is one of the only, if not simply the only, documentarians I trust to make a film about the Covid-19 pandemic. Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control last year was fine as a work of journalism, providing a timeline for what had transpired until then, but still felt like it didn’t really have anything much to say other than the obvious headlines. As soon as I saw Wang was directing this, I knew she’d do a great job as she’s become one of my favorite working documentarians over the past few years. Wang is a terrific journalist and an even better filmmaker. There is a level of immense courage in Wang’s films. Her previous films Hooligan Sparrow and One Child Nation could have jailed her at multiple points in each, she was risking her life for that footage. Her dogged determination for truth and her profound sense of empathy for her subjects are some of the reasons why she’s qualified to make a film about Coronavirus.

In the Same Breath begins by covering the outbreak in Wuhan with interviews of healthcare workers on the ground and people who lost relatives in the Wuhan outbreak. It’s here Wang begins her examination of the inherent instinct of a government to censor information and politicize trauma. Patients at the hospital in Wuhan won’t even talk to the camera, and Wang has trouble getting footage from inside the hospitals as the government has only allowed positive stories and images to be filmed. What Wang crafts this film into is not only a record of the initial outbreak, but an examination of how both her home country of China and America both responded with immensely similar incompetence and blatant lying from the highest forms of government, and the propaganda perpetrated by each to consolidate overzealous patriotism and power.

She very craftily shows the progression of misinformation and how it morphs into propaganda. A particularly effective shot shows 9 different tv reporters repeating the same government line about the virus in sync. She examines multiple pieces of propaganda showing the frontline healthcare workers as heroes in China, and it looks just like some of the shit we saw here in America. We call them heroes, run ads saying thank you, and then do absolutely nothing to improve their conditions. “These images become the official record of the disaster.” Wang hauntingly remarks. Governments weaponize trauma to push forward their own political agendas and renew patriotic fervor like clockwork throughout time, and this was no different.

Throughout her geopolitical examinations, Wang still makes sure we don’t forget the human cost in all this, and is able to get some very emotional interviews with frontline workers and relatives of those who have died in both China and America. One father looks on the city of Wuhan, brightly lit in celebration of the end of lockdown, and remarks on the last conversation he had with his son. A heart wrenching sequence showing someone having to make the impossible decision to leave her at a hospital she likely won’t get a bed in, or take her home. Either way she dies. 

After one interviewee remarks that tens of thousands had died in China because they had no freedom of speech, Wang slyly cuts to footage of MAGA rallies to reopen states and calling the virus a hoax. “Is this what freedom looks like?” she asks. She tries to be sympathetic to anti-maskers and people who protest saying the virus is a hoax, because she recognizes the distrust of institutions that she has held toward her home country. She loses her point a little bit in this sequence but I understand what she was going for. She’s trying to display how there isn’t as big a difference between authoritarianism and current democracy as we’d like to think. 

It gets a little ham-fisted in an ending sequence showing a utopian-like existence about what could have happened if governments acted responsibly from day one. But you understand she knows it could have never happened. She shows how New Years Day in Wuhan 2021 looks exactly how it did in 2020. She questions our collective desire to “go back to normal” when normal created the conditions that allowed this disease to ravage the world. I’ve been wary of watching any film produced about the pandemic because I find it troubling we constantly have to have a documentary/series about something months after it happens, but I didn’t have that apprehension because of how great a filmmaker Wang is. She rewards that trust, delivering another sobering account of governmental abuse that fits right into her filmography. I’m glad it’s at least her making this sort of film. If we have to have a Covid-19 documentary to tell us how to feel, it should be this one.

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