Sundance 2021: In the Same Breath Review

Weaving archival propaganda footage, firsthand accounts and her own personal history Nanfu Wang weaves a rightfully disturbing chronicle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Repetition has a way of stressing or deadening a point. For filmmaker Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow, One Child Nation), repetition is a key structural and storytelling choice in her latest endeavour, In the Same Breath. Chronicling the Chinese government’s response to the Wuhan province COVID-19 outbreak in late 2019 and early 2020, Wang’s documentary is a study in the powers and dangers of repetition.

Using her own personal history as the frame for the piece, Wang kicks off In the Same Breath in January 2020. She spent much of that month following reports of a new SARS virus in Wuhan and fretting about what to do with her son, whom she’d left in China to spend some time with his grandmother. Even after her child made it back safely to the U.S., Wang remained fascinated with the way the Chinese government was handling the situation. For weeks she’d seen news anchors echo one another: there was no human-to-human transmission. As she does throughout the doc, those moments of spliced archival news footage where the same line is repeated verbatim feel like terrifying omens. For Wang had also been following social media closely and knew that hundreds of people had been clamouring for medical help for weeks. It was only on January 23 when the Chinese government took what seemed then swift action to close Wuhan and try to stop the spread of the virus.

It’d be one thing if In the Same Breath were merely an archive-driven piece but Wang and her research team have plenty of fascinating material that’s dynamically presented throughout. In addition to news broadcasts, Wang features plenty of state-sanctioned propaganda that sums up the story China wanted to tell itself (and the world) about how they dealt with the virus. Patriotic songs and syrupy news specials honouring health care workers paint a picture of a firm government response that quashed the virus in the region. But Wang juxtaposes those eerily sterile and repetitive images with footage shot by on the ground cinematographers in Wuhan that tell a more complicated story.

Hiring camera people to record what was going on in hospitals, Wang secured footage and stories that feel all the more alarming even one year out. Patients and loved ones are seen talking about diagnoses that date back to November 2019. Doctors and nurses refuse to go on the record but are seen struggling to keep up with the demand for care. Ambulance workers are told to stop bringing patients in, lines for crematoriums stretch out for blocks on end, and anyone shooting any of these scenes on video is at serious risk of being taken in for questioning.

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In the Same Breath shows us the divide that can exist between the official story and reality. But also something much more insidious. Even as her investigation shows fudged numbers around those who perished and keenly lays out the delayed response despite early warnings, those interviewed (many of whom lost partners, children, parents) remain steadfast admirers of the Communist Party. As Wang shares at one point in the film, she’d hoped the COVID-19 pandemic would have ushered in more scrutiny about the Chinese government and its authoritarian throttling of what really happened in Wuhan, but In the Same Breath shows that never really happened. Except for the citizen journalists and activists who have, for the most part, disappeared or found themselves jailed.

Wang goes one step further though. Lucidly showing how history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, In the Same Breath juxtaposes those Chinese broadcasts in early January to the very same kind of statements uttered by Donald Trump and later Anthony Fauci who, as late as Spring 2020, were saying there was little to fear in the U.S. Wang, it turns out, is just as interested in examining the ways authority figures — those we turn to for truth and guidance — failed its constituents both in China and abroad. By the time we see images of lockdown protests in the United States, with homemade signs that read “This is America. Not China.” it’s clear that such neat comparisons hide much murkier narratives about freedom and authoritarianism. As if offering two sides of the same coin, Wang’s part-investigation/part-memoiristic essay shows the collateral damage that image and PR-focused politics can do when faced with something as unsparing as a deadly virus.

In the Same Breath is a story, twice told, of neglect. The eerie urban landscapes that frame much of the film stand in stark contrast with the crowded images of Wuhan on New Years Day that open and close the film. Those crowds are jubilant — on one end unaware of what was to come, on the other, content about what’s been put behind. As a chronicle of the early days of the pandemic, Wang’s film is a sobering watch. But it’s the ambition to tackle the underlying questions the pandemic has forced many of us to ask (what is truth? how does patriotism engender bias? what’s the value of a life?) that makes In the Same Breath feel more resonant. It’s both a snapshot and an X-ray. And the prognosis, as Wang says late in the film, looks as dour as ever.

In the Same Breath screened as part of Sundance 2021, which runs until February 3.

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