“In the Same Breath” isn’t shot like most documentaries. Towards the beginning of the film, director Nanfu Wang describes the process by which she chose her collaborators, explaining how she contacted camera operators on the ground in Wuhan to see if they would feel comfortable working on a film that exposes the COVID-19 misinformation campaign waged by the Chinese government.
“I needed to feel confident that I could trust somebody participating in the project so that they couldn’t reveal any information to the authorities and potentially jeopardize [the film]” she told Variety at the Sundance studio presented by AT&T TV. Her concerns were seemingly validated when three of her collaborators left the production after being contacted by the authorities. But the intimidation tactics didn’t stop there. “In November, two secret agents went to talk my mom.”
Wang, the award-winning documentary filmmaker, examines both the Chinese and American government’s response to the coronavirus crisis in the HBO Documentaries film “In the Same Breath.” Following the events of the past year starting with the first outbreak in Wuhan all the way to New Year’s Eve celebrations in December of 2020, “In the Same Breath” presents a sobering and highly personal look at the virus which still rages on in the U.S. and across the globe.
Director Nanfu Wang joined Variety social media coordinator David Viramontes virtually at the Variety Studio presented by AT&T TV at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about bringing her latest project to the fest and break down the striking images featured in the documentary.
Tracking the outbreak chronologically, Wang moves stateside when coronavirus cases make landfall in the U.S. and captures testimonies from frontline healthcare workers about their lack of PPE and resources to properly defend against the virus. In one of the film’s most noteworthy moments, Wang captures those same healthcare workers reacting to American protestors asking the government to loosen pandemic restrictions around the country.
Of the protestors, Wang says she was initially angry at them, but grew to understand their rationale by considering the media they consume: “I started wondering, ‘How did they form their ideology, their belief system? Where did it come from? … Where did they get their information?’”
In the film, Wang explains how during the pandemic’s early days she didn’t think coronavirus would incapacitate the U.S. the way it has. “It forced me to confront my own bias or preconceived notions of what America was when I came here and what it is now,” she told Variety. In unraveling the propaganda surrounding much of the Chinese government’s reaction to the pandemic, the director compares her research to “an archeologist digging through material and finding traces of information.”
The film’s powerful closing emphasizes the dire importance of analyzing how authoritarian regimes respond to crises like the pandemic. “That ending concept was always the central theme and central question that drove me to make this film,” said Wang.
When asked what she’d like audiences walk away with, she says she hopes viewers would “think critically.” “If we agree that China is effective as a model, that they responded to the outbreak successfully, then we are being complicit to its propaganda and its censorship.”