After launching Hooligan Sparrow and One Child Nation to great acclaim, Nanfu Wang has become one of the shining stars of Sundance. With her latest effort In the Same Breath, the fearless documentary filmmaker brings another searing premiere to the festival. Continuing her ongoing quest to uncover the truth behind Chinese propaganda and censorship, Wang blows the whistle once more with a typically probing examination of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like a good journalist, Wang goes back to the source, reflecting on the earliest days of the virus’ emergence in Wuhan. It is January 2020 and Wuhan is joining the rest of the world in New Year’s celebrations. Wang herself is visiting China with her American husband and child in tow, unaware of the mayhem that is to come. Rumors start to spread about a mysterious type of pneumonia connected to a seafood market in Wuhan. Fearing mass panic and international attention, the government decides to hide news of the virus’ spread. But as they punish those who dare to sound the alarm, the death toll becomes too big to ignore.
Nanfu Wang documentaries always elicit awestruck “How did she pull this off?” responses and In the Same Breath is no different. In the midst of serious threats from the government prohibiting the spread information about the virus, Wang pulls together a courageous team of undercover journalists to document the truth of what was happening in the overwhelmed clinics and hospitals. What she and her crew capture is downright horrifying, showing people left to die in the streets and endless rows of new tombs for the dead.
Wang brilliantly juxtaposes these images with the government and state-controlled media’s more positive take on the situation. For those unfamiliar, it offers fascinating insight into China’s propaganda machine in action. As Chinese officials shift from downplaying the danger of the virus to celebrating the people’s heroism in conquering it, the dishonesty is almost laughable in its absurdity. Even more interesting is how strongly the citizens buy into it, including those who reveal their first-hand experiences with the healthcare system’s fatal negligence. Despite their devastating losses, we later see them joining in the patriotic chorus serenading the motherland. As Wang depicts the accompanying red-hued spectacle of mass crowds with waving flags, it’s easy to understand how even she could have been swept up in the fervor during her impressionable youth.
Around midway through the film, however, Wang makes an ingenious pivot to portray America’s COVID-19 response. Pulling no punches, she draws a damning through line of misinformation and censorship in the land of free speech. From traumatized nurses recounting the CDC’S pushback against wearing masks, to scenes of misled protestors denouncing lockdown measures, it’s a chilling reminder of how trusted experts and leaders can lead people astray with devastating consequences. With clear-eyed resolve, Nanfu Wang ultimately proves that during the war on COVID-19, the simultaneous war of bragging rights between democracy and authoritanism revealed no clear winner. We all suffer when exceptionalism takes precedent over the health and safety of the people.