Is there anyone in the US who hasn’t heard someone somewhere mention face mask requirements in the same breath as “communist”? The world premiere documentary Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath” presents both a contrast of countries and a tragedy of errors. Neither the US nor China come away as handling the pandemic well.
Chinese-born filmmaker Nanfu Wang had her debut film, “Hooligan Sparrow” premiere at Sundance in 2016. That film was shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature for the 2017 Oscars. Her more recent “One Child Nation” won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at Sundance in 2019. She attended the 2020 Sundance festival as a jury member. A year later, she’s back at Sundance with a revealing documentary on COVID-19 and how communist China and democratic USA dealt with the pandemic.
Last year, Wang, who has been living in the US for nine years, returned to China to celebrate the New Year with her mother, 200 miles east of Wuhan. With her were her husband and two-year-old child. If your only impression of Wuhan is related to a fresh markets and bats, Wang banishes that image by giving us an overhead view of the sparkling lights and electronic displays from skyscrapers surrounded by dense crowds of Wuhan citizens greeting the new year. There’s state programming on television of citizens performing choreographed displays of patriotism because “patriotism forms the backbone of our nation.” Red, the color of celebration, is everywhere.
Wang remembers a short, seemingly insignificant report on state media: “On January first, Wuhan police made an announcement. Eight people were punished for spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia.” The announcement barely registered with Wang. She and her family celebrated the new year, but, she recalls, “This was the last moment I remember when life felt normal.”
Soon after, the 11 million people of Wuhan were barricaded off from the rest of China and even the world. And when the people try to get treatment, they were often turned away. One of the creepiest clips shows all of the Chinese newscasters repeating the same scripts in their reports of COVID-19.
Wang can easily relate to these problems. She has family in China. She has a child. She recalls how her father died at the young age of 33 and she feels he would have lived if he could have had better treatment. In Wuhan, searching through social media accounts and through virtual interviews, she witnessed, people be turned away from hospitals. In one case, four different hospitals refused to treat a doctor.
Like Wang, there was another American family caught and separated by the pandemic. A Pennsylvania father, Frank Wucinski, left his wife behind because she stayed to care for her father. First landing in Miramar before heading home to south Pennsylvania, Wucinski made a public plea and Wang was surprised by the reaction. Footage from Inside Edition shows comments of people who are sure Wucinski’s claims were a hoax.
In late January, even though the first reported case Wang could find was on 1 December 2019, there were no temperature checks at the airports in China or the US.
Wang in her film narration notes, “I heard echoes of China’s outbreak all across the nation.” While citizen journalists in China were arrested or disappeared, health workers in the US were let go after questioning ever changing policies that one former nurse thought were “not based on standards” but based on supplies. If healthcare workers are having problems trusting the CDC, then the ordinary citizen would as well. Clips of the Anthony Fauci on CBS’ 60 Minutes Overtime show him downplaying the pandemic. Far worse, like President Xi Jinping, then-President Donald Trump spread disinformation. The result was confusion and a divided nation.
Wang concludes that in China “tens of thousands died because there was no freedom of speech” yet looking at the anti-mask protest in various cities, she has to ask, “Is this what freedom looks like?” The pandemic raged on because “it was circumstances that we considered normal that created the crisis we are living through right now” and “in both systems ordinary people become casualties of their leaders.”
“In the Same Breath” like last year’s “76 Days” should be require viewing for everyone in the US, not only to give insight into this COVID-19 pandemic but also to witness how two filmmakers rose and during unprecedented political and pandemic circumstances were able to innovate and quickly produce worthy projects. If you have any question about the importance of bilingual journalists or education, then both of these documentaries show that knowing only one language is not enough in an interconnected world where an incident in one country can quickly spread and affect a global community.
“In the Same Breath” made its world premiere at Sundance on 28 January 2021. The HBO Original Documentary will stream on HBO Max at a yet undetermined date.