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Documentary 'In the Same Breath' Takes a Devastating Look at the Pandemic's Outbreak


Published September 22, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 27, 2021 at 3:10 p.m.

VIRAL DOUBTS Health care workers face anti-lockdown protesters in Wang's documentary about the pandemic in China and the U.S. - COURTESY OF WARNER MEDIA
  • Courtesy of Warner Media
  • VIRAL DOUBTS Health care workers face anti-lockdown protesters in Wang's documentary about the pandemic in China and the U.S.

January 23, 2020, was the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival. Documentarian Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) had flown to Utah to serve on the festival's jury, leaving her young son in her native China with his grandmother.

January 23 was also the day when the Chinese authorities locked down Wuhan in an effort to contain the initial COVID-19 outbreak. Frightened for her mother and son, who were about 200 miles from the city, Wang turned to social media to find out what was happening. But many posts from Wuhan disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, taken down by government authorities.

Wang archived as many posts as she could and contacted U.S. media about their disturbing contents. No one responded. With the help of a group of camerapeople she recruited in Wuhan, Wang began the process of turning her findings into a documentary.

Meanwhile, Wang's husband returned their son safely to the couple's New Jersey home. But, as it turned out, the U.S. wasn't quite so safe after all. Both the Chinese and American pandemic experiences inform Wang's film In the Same Breath, which premiered at 2021's all-virtual Sundance Film Festival and is now streaming on HBO Max.

The deal

The film opens with footage of Wuhan's midnight celebrations on January 1, 2020. Skyscrapers were lit up in neon colors; crowds jammed public squares. Amid the festivities, a tiny news item was easy to overlook: The state punished eight people for spreading rumors about a new form of pneumonia.

Meanwhile, at a clinic near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market — later identified as the virus' epicenter — people had been coming in with coughs and shortness of breath. We see them in security footage provided by the clinic's owner, who later lost her husband to COVID-19.

Within a few weeks, Wuhan's hospitals were full. Desperate people posted their chest X-rays on social media in hopes of finding treatment. We watch as a man faces the horrific choice to wait with his dying mother in a hospital parking lot or bring her home; there are no beds for her. Another man watches his grown son die.

Wang obtained this footage by enlisting some of the few camerapeople who had government authorization to shoot inside hospitals and were willing to capture stories that didn't fit the official narrative. In the U.S., she assembled another fleet of camerapeople, who interviewed health care workers and anti-lockdown protesters.

Two American nurses weep on camera in the film. Many express their frustration with misinformation. "This is not a political agenda," one says. "We have to be united to fight this."

But the film makes it clear that "we" — on a global level — have been anything but united in opposition to the coronavirus. Touching on the rivalry between China and the U.S., both governments' strategies of denial, and the ideological disputes that somehow politicized a virus, In the Same Breath demonstrates an utter, abject and tragic failure to embrace teamwork.

Will you like it?

In the Same Breath is a raw document of recent history from a strongly personal perspective. Much of it consists simply of anecdotes threaded together by Wang's narration, but they have a devastating cumulative effect.

Perhaps that's because, unlike the typical pandemic documentarian, Wang focuses not on experts and authorities but on regular people. We see Wuhan residents burning offerings to their dead loved ones on the sidewalk. We hear from an anonymous funeral home employee who claims to have handled as many as 20,000 bodies during the city's outbreak (that would be about five times the official death toll). Another Chinese interviewee says that, until COVID-19, he had relished his nation's prosperity without worrying about little things like freedom of speech. Now he knows that state control of information can be deadly.

I found myself wondering how the film might look to a young person a few decades from now, trying to get an overview of the events of 2020. From that vantage, the documentary might seem muddled, because the American material distracts from Wang's powerful exposé of government malfeasance and cover-up in Wuhan.

The filmmaker covers the Trump administration's mishandling of the pandemic in broad strokes, clearly assuming her audience is already familiar with it. But for today's American viewers, who do indeed know that side of the story, the lopsidedness isn't a problem.

Harrowing and inspiring, In the Same Breath offers an intimate window into a world of pandemic experiences that was hidden from us. While some may accuse the film of being anti-Chinese or anti-American, Wang's provocative thesis is that the pandemic revealed the two superpowers have more in common than their partisans like to admit. "In both systems," she says, "ordinary people became casualties of their leaders' pursuit of power."

If you like this, try...

76 Days (2020; Paramount+, rentable): Short-listed for an Academy Award, this documentary from three codirectors was shot on the ground in Wuhan and chronicles the early days of the pandemic there.

Totally Under Control (2020; Hulu, rentable): For a more in-depth examination of the U.S.'s response to COVID-19, try this documentary from Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side).

One Child Nation (2019; Amazon Prime Video): Wang also wove personal experiences into her previous doc, about the damaging effects of China's one-child policy.