SXSW Review: In the Same Breath

SXSW Review: In the Same Breath

It’s not easy to find something that the whole world knows about and can relate to, and the coronavirus pandemic is one of the few exceptions. Yet for something that’s traveled from continent to continent and infected millions of people, there’s so much that’s still not known about it and a tremendous amount of misinformation being dispelled by government officials and conspiracy theorists. Many who do believe that the disease is real and that it is highly transmissible are confident that there was a way to manage this differently on a global and national scale. Filmmaker Nanfu Wang, best known for the documentary One Child Nation, has some startling and controversial ideas.

In the Same Breath opens on New Year’s Eve in Wuhan, China as 2019 becomes 2020. It follows early reports that “eight people were punished for spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia,” a line uttered verbatim on numerous channels, and repeated claims that there was no evidence to show human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 when it did begin to officially emerge. January 20th hits and human spread is confirmed, but it is described as still preventable and controllable, and the three days later, the city is locked down. That jarring timeline should be familiar to Americans as well, who went from hearing about this disease thousands of miles away to seeing it largely shut down their own country just over a full year ago.

Nanfu has many avenues to explore in this constantly captivating documentary, which begin with the Chinese government’s dissemination of positive stories and glorious celebrations of achievement that she believes were designed from the reality of what was actually happening.

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She questions where the adversity that she was always taught to fight against came from and expresses concern over the photographs and journalists she hires to film inside Chinese hospitals being restricted. Nanfu was born and raised in China but has lived in the United States for many years, so she is especially qualified to analyze the different ways in which the media functions and the governments operate. She brings an important spotlight to what happened in China that American audiences will surely find illuminating – and disturbing.

One father describes how his son was checked into a hospital as early as late November, which is considerably earlier than the disease was first publicly reported.

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In order to get anyone to talk to her, Nanfu had to go to private clinics since state hospitals wouldn’t allow any interviews. Stories about people who were being refused admission to hospitals uploading their names and IDs with their X-rays in order to receive some hope of diagnosis are harrowing, and the fact that they were covered up by propaganda crews is even more unsettling. Why none of these questions have been thoroughly or satisfactorily probed by the World Health Organization is a mystery. Where her research gets even more interesting is when she turns her camera on America.

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Footage of unmasked protestors gathered in large crowds in major cities waving American flags and wearing MAGA hats have an intense impact, especially when accompanied by the theories they espouse, which include the virus not being real and the death tolls being wildly inflated. Nanfu suggests that, regardless of its content, what they are doing and saying by gathering and demanding to be heard is precisely what the Communist Chinese government prevents, and an example of the free speech that isn’t possible in a country where journalists and whistleblowers go missing after reporting on something those in power don’t want exposed.

Nanfu spends little time vilifying President Trump and his administration for their role is spreading misinformation about the virus, though the few short clips she does play are undeniably emphatic. Audio of Dr. Fauci saying that there is no reason for anyone to be walking around with a mask is featured multiple times, and it’s hard not to find that damning. What Nanfu seems to be most interested in – as anyone watching this film should be – is the pursuit of truth, something that appears to be woefully out of reach.

This documentary is not the first to spotlight the early moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 76 Days, Wuhan Wuhan, and others already covering the subject, and it will most definitely not be the last. Its release in this moment while the pandemic is not over may make it more difficult to watch then when normal life has partially resumed and some time has passed. It can be viewed as an indictment of information management and the desire for governments to put their own self-interests ahead of those of their people, with Chinese and American leadership to be held accountable for both.

One of the most effective tools used in this film is the editing of news clips in barrage form, transforming messages about protocols and augmenting case counts at an overwhelmingly quick pace. Healthcare workers watching and listening to protestors rationalizing their calls to reopen the country immediately are powerful, as are testimonials from those who lost family members under unimaginable circumstances. Among the most vivid and poignant scenes in the film is a theoretical montage of what could have happened had this crisis been managed correctly from its very inception, though of course, as the film reluctantly acknowledges, it’s far too late to do anything but imagine that.

There may be too much content for this particular thesis to be contained in a film that runs just over an hour and a half, and there are certainly ideas Nanfu presents that she doesn’t have time to fully flesh out or investigate. In a time where Asian-Americans are increasingly becoming victims of hate crimes, this film won’t do anything to help that, since viewers who already blame COVID-19 on China will find little to convince them to assume a more collective responsibility for its spread. In giving a voice to those who face immediate arrest and indefinite imprisonment for speaking up, Nanfu’s work is exemplary, and this documentary, while imperfect, is an absolutely critical starting point for very necessary conversation.

Grade: B

In the Same Breath first premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and screened as a Festival Favorite at SXSW Online 2021. It is coming soon to HBO.

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