Chinese director Nanfu Wang’s newest documentary, In the Same Breath, follows the unfolding chaos, fear and misinformation of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China and the United States, beginning on New Year’s 2020. Known for One Child Nation (2019) and I Am Another You (2017), Wang, who has lived in the US for nine years, returns to China each New Year. In the Same Breath opens with celebratory New Year’s scenes of the Wuhan skyline. Hundreds of colorful balloons are released from the hands of the celebrating crowd; they soar into the night sky against the backdrop of skyscrapers illuminated with neon lights that change color from one moment to the next, like the shifting information about the “unknown pneumonia” that would be alluded to on state television later that day.
Premiering in the United States in August 2021, the documentary fuses on-the-ground footage from China, clips from the propaganda machine of Chinese news, and taped interviews with people whose relatives died from their sickness. “Patriotism forms the background of our country,” President Xi Jinping says in a speech broadcast throughout China on New Year’s Day. The whispering of “unknown pneumonia” that came from Chinese media barely registered with the population. “This was the last moment,” Wang narrates, “that I can remember when life still felt normal.” It’s easy to relate.
Wang, over the coming months, would be haunted from that initial news bulletin. She left her son in China to spend the holiday celebrations with her mother. On January 23, when she landed in the US, the Chinese government announced the lockdown of Wuhan, sealing off 11 million people from the outside world: “Every movement required approval from party officials.” Footage shows people dead on the street. The government began removing images from social media. Filming on street became “sensitive.”
The government ordered hospital staff to keep COVID cases secret. Filming at hospitals required an official government letter. The reality of what was happening in Wuhan had to be told anonymously, in real fear of retaliation from the government. “Many doctors only agreed to tell positive stories.” The government sent hundreds of journalists to report on the situation: the propaganda department skewed the story to create a narrative of China’s strength and victory over the virus. At the time, Wang reached out to numerous major western media outlets, but none would cover the story.
At one point, the documentary uses a Brady Bunch split screen of nine news reporters making the same statement: “A reminder from the police: Obey laws and regulations for online activities. Nobody can get away with spreading rumors online.” Eight doctors, who had identified the virus spreading between people, had been “punished” while newscasters announced that “no clear evidence shows human-to-human transmission.”
The structure of In the Same Breath is deliberate, showing hundreds of formally dressed party officials sitting close together during the annual People’s Congress in Hubei Province, contrasting the isolation of patients and protective equipment of doctors and nurses. Hospitals and hotlines were overwhelmed. It wasn’t until January 20th, two days after end of the session of Congress, and three days before the lockdown, that the government finally acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the virus.
Footage reveals emergency call center workers rejecting patients for hospital admission—the hospitals at capacity. One elderly woman arrives at the hospital in an ambulance, but staff informs the family that the hospital is at capacity: “you need to be prepared for the worst. She might die while waiting here.” The choice is between leaving her to wait at the hospital without being able to get treatment or taking her home where there is no chance of treatment at all. This scene is a microcosm of the film at large, demonstrating the effectiveness of Wang’s ability to individualize the collective suffering and scale of death and sickness that all of us were inundated with once the virus moved to Europe and the United States. Over and over, interviewees repeat that the last time they saw their loved one was when the were taken to the hospital. “There’s no real chance for goodbye,” one family member says.
News of the virus on Chinese television displays a pattern of propaganda narratives where healthcare workers are heroes. Pregnant women with COVID-19 give birth to healthy babies. Regular people overcome adversity. Wang narrates: “When the government is telling us where to look, they’re also telling us where not to look.”
Then the virus reaches New York. The statements and footage from American politicians are like that of the Chinese. On March 8th, in an interview for 60 Minutes, Dr. Fauci says there’s no reason for Americans to walk around with masks. As the days go by, In the Same Breath shows each day—March 16, 17, 18, 19—in a yellow textbox on the bottom right of the screen while NYC’s mayor de Blasio recites the exponential rise in new cases each day. Footage of masked people and ambulance sirens linger in the background. And then Governor Cuomo issues the lockdown. Again, mimicking the Chinese government response, Wang interviews American doctors and nurses who recount stories of themselves or a coworker being fired for speaking out against hospital protocols, responses, safety.
An hour into the documentary is one of its most poignant scenes. Healthcare workers are interviewed breaking down in tears, struggling to recount the amount of suffering they witnessed, and the helplessness they still feel. Wang flashes from the American nurses to the Chinese nurses: the pain is the same. The helplessness is the same.
Yet, the Chinese transform the suffering into victory. A ceremony is given—a victory flag is given to health care workers in Wuhan. Wang narrates: “Disasters become propaganda tools instead of inspiring change. These images become the official images of the disaster. It was another triumph for the Communist party.” In the Same Breath shifts from these images to Americans protesting the lockdown in the US, citing the violation of their freedom.
On September 7, China has a ceremony to celebrate its victory over COVID-19. Chinese news emphasizes their “superior system.” Meanwhile, more than a dozen journalists and activists in Wuhan had been arrested or simply disappeared. In the end, the film rewinds itself, like an old VHS, back to New Year’s, reimagining how this could have gone differently—if only the government had been forthcoming, if only there had been transparency.