From Wuhan to New York City, Nanfu Wang’s eye-opening documentary In the Same Breath unveils an intimate and damning image of COVID-19, tracking from December 2019 all the way to January 1, 2021. While every single person has been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wang’s film sheds light on the culture of disinformation, the pursuit of power, and injury of trauma left in the wake of this international tragedy.
Having emigrated from China nine years ago to America, Wang adds an intimate narrative voice to the film, recounting her own experience last January when she left her son in the care of her mother in the Jiangxi Province during Chinese New Year only to be forced to frantically fly back to China to retrieve him before the lockdowns began.
In the Same Breath comes in two folds. The first is the story of the outbreak in Wuhan, as documented by citizen journalists and anonymous cinematographers. We watch people coming into private clinics in December 2019 with colds and coughs and fevers. We see the beds slowly fill up before they are overflowing. We see families say goodbye to one another. Fathers burying sons. Wives burying husbands. We watch as first responders push a stretcher through back alleys for fifteen minutes to get to a patient who will likely arrive at a hospital that has no space for them.
It’s absolutely painful and devastating. Intercut between these shots come the propaganda from the government. Eight doctors are arrested on January 1, 2020, for disseminating false rumors of a new virus. The government denies person-to-person transmission. They wait over a month before announcing a lockdown. The inaccurate death toll, with one funeral worker saying, “Only a fool would believe that number,” in reference to the 3,000 deaths reported by China. The reality is well over 30,000. A Chinese man laments in front of a grave that he had supported his country during the Hong Kong protests, not understanding the sentiment of ‘give me liberty, or give me death.’ But after experiencing COVID, he says, “Without freedom of speech, many people have perished, tens of thousands of them.”
But then comes the other side of this doc, the American story. Wang, a woman of two worlds, notes that in both countries that she’s lived in, “Ordinary people become casualties in their leaders’ pursuits of power.” And as she interviews Americans who called the pandemic a hoax or deny its severity, another layer to this story is unveiled. As we hear first-hand accounts from nurses and doctors, it’s worrying to see the same silencing of healthcare workers popping up in American hospitals.
One nurse, Diana Torres, who works at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York was following the story of COVID in Wuhan early in the year and started asking her hospital about procedures in case of an outbreak but the hospital never had anything. So, when the numbers skyrocketed in New York in March, going from a couple of cases to five thousand in two weeks, the healthcare workers had no idea what to do. “It’s sort of like walking into a fire and you have nothing to stop the fire,” Torres said. “And here you are, raising the alarm and trying to call for help, and everybody’s just kind of brushing you off. I was accused of causing hysteria and spreading rumors.” And it wasn’t just Torres. Countless medical professionals were fired for trying to expose the truth to the public.
Another former nurse was told not to use her n95 mask and gloves that she brought from home. She hypothesized that when the CDC came out to say that people did not need to wear masks outdoors it was a scheme to ensure that there would be enough supply for the healthcare workers. Wang herself was explaining to her mother back in China that the cases were not serious in America and she trusted in the information the CDC came out with.
In the Same Breath highlights the experience of medical professionals, whose actions are so often praised while their trauma is ignored. One doctor in China said, “On January 22, the second our hospital became a designated COVID-19 hospital, I remember seeing people just packed everywhere. It felt like hell on earth. It has become a recurring scene in my nightmares.” Similar moments of American healthcare workers crying while reliving their traumatic experiences speak to the immense toll of this pandemic. Seeing the celebration that China had for their healthcare workers, Wang is surprised by how young these professionals are.
When China sent thousands of young people to Wuhan to treat COVID, I found it hard not to liken that to sending young soldiers into the fray of war. With people emerging from the trauma with an even stronger patriotic sentiment sometimes, Wang reveals how easily the Chinese government can twist a disaster into a tool for their propaganda machine. The same people we have followed since the beginning of the documentary, who justifiably should be outraged at their government’s treatment of this pandemic, are tearfully and emotionally grateful to China. One man who lost his son thanked the government for the $100 of pandemic relief he was given after his son’s death.
As we watch the Chinese government slowly unleash their propaganda machine, we watch as the narrative of China handling the pandemic well is spread worldwide, with groups like the World Health Organization praising them. In America, there is a desire to seek out the truth from all people, who don’t want a politicized version of the truth. As a woman sporting a MAGA hat says, “Accurate information is absolutely imperative because we have too many people that just follow the leader. The leader could lead them to the edge of a cliff and they would go. That’s what will happen to our country.”
Even those who are brave enough to speak out against the Chinese government, risk the chance of arrest or being disappeared. The now infamous Chen Qiushi, a human rights lawyer and citizen journalist, live-streamed his COVID coverage until February 6th, when he disappeared. In his last video, he says, “Of course I’m scared. I’m threatened by both the virus and the government. But I will keep fighting. As long as I’m alive, I’ll keep reporting and tell the world what I see and hear. I like making bold statements. Here’s my statement today: Even death doesn’t scare me, why would I fear the communist party?” Wang has acknowledged in the post-premiere Sundance Q&A that she and those who participated in the documentary are likely at risk for what they revealed in this film and have a good reason to fear for their safety.
As a Chinese American, I struggled with the fear of disinformation when it came to learning about pandemic news from my relatives. My parents, similarly, were unsure of what to trust when they read Chinese news reports, understanding that what was written there was likely altered by the government to make the country seem under control. My relatives, who lived over 600 miles away from Wuhan, in video calls, would downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. Looking around, it was hard to know what to trust and what to believe in.
It is a lofty dream to imagine that In the Same Breath might open up a dialogue at least amongst Americans. The film doesn’t offer much but a new perspective because the enemy to be conquered is titanic in size. But something must change to avoid following the same fate should another global crisis hit us in the future.