In her fourth feature-length documentary, In the Same Breath, Chinese-American filmmaker Nanfu Wang explores how the Chinese Government downplayed the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, in order to ‘create’ a triumph for the Communist Party.
From the outset, we see the patriotic propaganda of China’s Communist Party. While citizens celebrate ‘the landmark year’ of 2020 with smiles and flag waving, there is an instilled sense of forced pride. Then the news hits – eight doctors are arrested for spreading ‘rumours’ of an unknown virus. The report spreads across the country, which quickly dismisses it as hearsay. But in the weeks that follow, we see a darker and shocking development underway.
Using covert footage from state-run hospitals, Wang highlights the shocking level of censorship in China. Hospital staff and admissions are reluctant interviewees and downplay the seriousness of virus for the press. In addition, the state chooses to spread messages of ‘positive energy’ rather than reveal the dangers of COVID. Therefore, the eerily similar broadcasts across Chinese media not only brings a level of cultish terror but essentially become ‘fake news’, not to mention implied political protection from other nations.
Despite China’s stringent censorship, In the Same Breath uncovers how Wuhan’s citizens suffer from a heartbreaking lack of resources and support. Between hospital staff ferrying victims across the city to family members unable to say goodbye to their deceased relatives, there is a feeling of helplessness that now feels all-too familiar. This is intensified by the government celebrating their ‘triumph’ over COVID while people continue to suffer. With China’s contrasting messages captured via eye-opening footage, Wang paints a sullen picture on an unprecedented situation made worse by China’s authoritarian government.
In the Same Breath takes a more shocking turn when its narrative crosses over to the USA. The documentary highlights how American citizens, including Wang herself, try to warn media about COVID before it hit US soil. Despite their first-hand experience with the virus, their warnings fall on deaf ears. It doesn’t take long until we see a repeated pattern of denial and patriotic government messages – only this time, it is in a country with no censorship. Therefore, people openly exude frustration and ignorance while protesting about the stretched truths of the pandemic. While China and the US have contrasting stances on freedom of speech, they ultimately demonstrate the same level of political arrogance and how we – as a society – are suffering from it.
Through her careful direction, Wang brings a first-hand perspective in her brutally honest documentary. Daring to defy the sceptics, In the Same Breath is unrestrained, powerful and essential viewing.
Director: Nanfu Wang
Runtime: 95 minutes
Country: USA, China