Exempting the news, I have been trying to avoid all media made during and/or about the COVID-19 pandemic, instead retreating to familiar comfort movies over the past year and drawing a clear line between my exits into escapism and my real life. Making this distinction has been helpful in maintaining some semblance of control over a small part of my life, in keeping something that brings me joy away from what’s been happening outside.
Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath” documents the spread of COVID-19 from its source in Wuhan, China. It depicts the Chinese and American governments’ handling of the situation and the immense toll it has had on the families of victims and the frontline healthcare workers who have worked through the worst of the pandemic. The documentary unequivocally breaks the informal, “no-COVID-in-my-movies” rule I had laid out for myself, but, as the United States marked a full year of the pandemic and lockdown, I felt like I was ready to cross the line.
“In the Same Breath” begins and ends on the same day, one year apart — Jan. 1 — at midnight during New Year’s celebrations in Wuhan. Wang, whose mother lives in a village 200 miles outside of the city, had flown in with her young son to ring in 2020. She ended up going home to New York City early, leaving her son in her mother’s care, but as the novel coronavirus spread throughout Hubei Province, she and her husband scrambled to get their son back to the United States.
That was in mid-January of 2020. By Jan. 23, Wuhan was completely closed off in an effort to contain the virus to the city. International alarms hadn’t been set off yet, and the Chinese government was scrambling to keep everything quiet and contained. However, Wang noticed message boards start to explode with posts from people concerned that they had been showing alarming symptoms of what doctors had dismissed as the common cold or flu. As cases started to rise exponentially and the city locked down, Wang enlisted a team of camerapeople from within Wuhan to film inside hospitals and on the near-empty city streets.
The access these camera operators offer can be stunning in its reach, as it spans from inside hospital rooms, right next to patients dying of the virus, to the inside of an ambulance carrying someone to the hospital, to small apartments and narrow stairways where the infected are seen being carried away on stretchers. This footage is gut-wrenching in its intimacy. It captures, in one instance, a woman being turned away from a hospital because it’s at full capacity. Her family members are left standing on the street, wondering if she will be able to survive the trip home.
These shots of on-the-ground footage are interspersed with testimonials from people whose family members died of the virus and clips from Chinese news networks tracking the government’s response or nonresponse to the virus’s emergence. These clips give a more holistic view of COVID-19’s impact on the city on a personal and political level, but they also serve to emphasize a greater point Wang makes about Chinese propaganda and nationalism.
In a particularly eerie sequence, nine news anchors repeat the same lines insisting that the virus is not a threat, over and over again, word for word. Two family members of COVID-19 victims, devastated by their losses, adamantly insist that they are grateful to the government for leading them through the pandemic.
The documentary is not only an indictment of Chinese authoritarianism, government censorship and propaganda, but of the American healthcare system. It draws parallels between the way early warnings about the virus were suppressed in China and the way that some health care workers in the United States were reprimanded, punished and sometimes fired for raising concerns about hospitals’ preparation for the virus. It recalls how Dr. Anthony Fauci publicly insisted that there was no reason to be walking around with a mask on as late as March 8, 11 days before California became the first state to issue a stay-at-home order.
One of the film’s closing arguments posits that the official number of COVID-19 related deaths in Wuhan, around 3,000 at the end of Wuhan’s lockdown in April, was in reality upwards of 30,000. In the United States, we’ve seen the same kind of manipulation of numbers recently, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo currently being investigated for, among other things, covering up high death counts in nursing homes.
All of the film’s elements come together to a devastating effect. Through testimonials and such frank images of suffering, the personal consequences of the pandemic inspire compassion. When they are tied to evidence of governmental mishandling of the pandemic (evidence which we have in spades) and images of rising authoritarianism, they inspire outrage, frustration and maybe just a little bit of existential dread.
“In the Same Breath” is as brutal and unflinching as it is informative, and I feel its emotional impact deeply. Watching it meant scaling my carefully constructed wall which blocked out COVID-19 related content and falling into a painfully comprehensive look at the reality of the pandemic. It made me simultaneously relieved that we are through the worst of things but terrified of what it’s going to mean for the world going forward.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.