Documentary Review: In the Same Breath

In the Same Breath (2021)
Director: Nanfu Wang

As Omicron descends, this is the documentary to watch–or avoid–depending on your temperament. Director Nanfu Wang takes viewers back to the earliest days of the pandemic, opening with eerie footage of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Wuhan, where thousands of revelers, some of them likely already infected with Covid-19, mingled in close quarters, sang, cheered, danced, and generally did everything we’ve been avoiding for the past two years. Wang herself was there, celebrating with her family. On New Year’s Day, a stray news item caught Wang’s attention: eight people were punished for “spreading rumors” about a new form of pneumonia that had emerged in local hospitals. The punishment was the headline, not the pneumonia, and it wasn’t a big story. No one gave it much thought, even Wang, who was preoccupied with her return to the U.S. where she is a naturalized citizen. It was only in retrospect that she realized she had witnessed the Chinese government’s early response to the threat of Covid-19. Her documentary takes a close look at the Chinese government’s failure to communicate the dangers of Covid-19 to its citizens and to the world, and compares it with America’s response, three months later, which was dispiritingly similar, with political leaders downplaying the virus until the very last minute.

Wang takes a personal approach to her subject, describing her own experience with the virus, as well as her emotional reaction to the Chinese and American messaging around the virus. Surprisingly, she was not at all skeptical of the early confidence of U.S. government officials, even as she knew how the virus had ravaged Wuhan. Her vulnerability and relative naïveté give her storytelling a humanity that I appreciated. She doesn’t take the tone of an investigative reporter trying to explain how everything went wrong, nor is she trying to uncover new facts about the pandemic. Nevertheless, she gets some remarkable footage from Wuhan at the height of their crisis. She recruits a scrappy team of camera-people who somehow get into hospitals and ambulances, accompanying families as they try to get their loved ones into crowded emergency rooms. In one awful scene, two men stand outside an ambulance debating whether or not to attempt to bring their critically ill family member into a hospital where they will have to wait for hours. The only option is to return home, where their sick relative will likely die within hours. Footage inside the hospital is heavily censored with staffers instructed to only share “positive” Covid-19 stories with the press, but one candid interview with a distraught father reveals that the virus may have been circulating in Wuhan in November.

In the United States, the interviews are revealing in a different way. We like to think that American medical workers would be free to speak the truth about the dangers of Covid-19, but Wang talks with nurses who were threatened with firing when they complained that they did not have the necessary protective equipment to deal with the virus. One irony is that the Chinese medical staff were well supplied with masks and full-body suits to protect them from the virus, even as they were downplaying its severity and undercounting deaths. American doctors and nurses, on the other hand, were cobbling together garbage-bag suits and home-made cloth masks while being told they were dealing with a highly contagious and deadly virus. Wang reveals how both countries insisted on putting forth a positive message, even when the situation was clearly dire. She also delves into the misinformation and conspiracy theories that have plagued American politics. She has sympathy for Americans who want to put their trust in the government and feel betrayed and confused by the mixed messaging. Her wistfulness coalesces into something more radical at the end of her documentary when she observes that both the Chinese and American political leaders focused on maintaining their power rather than protecting citizens. The same mistakes are being made over and over again for the simple reason that those in power are worried about losing it if they admit to error, defeat, or uncertainty.

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