In The Same Breath opens with a sweeping shot of dramatic irony. This is New Year’s Eve in Wuhan, China. A mass of people cheer and holler as the first seconds of 2020 are declared on a building face of one of Wuhan’s many skyscrapers, which are adorned with miles of red strip lighting. These jubilant citizens are unaware of a new virus that has been spreading for weeks. If any of them are ill, they’ve probably blamed it on a common cold. Later in the doc, we see this sentiment in footage from a pharmacy’s webcam, which shows dozens of people turn up complaining of flu-like symptoms. It’s all part of director Nanfu Wang’s intimate and foreboding account of Covid-19.
As a Chinese citizen living in the US with an American husband and child, Wang has a unique perspective on the pandemic. She was cut off from her family in Wuhan for months, but she was able to recruit a team of videographers to capture the situation in the institutions of China’s ninth largest city.
Most of us will be familiar with the dire imagery oframmed hospital wards and patients gasping for ventilated breaths, but this handheld footage from within the People’s Republic have a fresh and disturbing insight. We see one family having to decide whether to leave their relative in a hospital corridor or take them back home. It was an impossible decision made by scores of people, for the doctors and paramedics of Wuhan simply could not manage the terrible influx of victims.
In the Same Breath is a bottom-up account, a piece of visceral social history. After all, a top down account of China’s Covid experience would be impossible, for China’s governing classes are inveterate liars. Wang shows the creepy automatons presenting the state news programmes, repeating the state propaganda word for word. In the first days and weeks of the crisis, these robots repeat the mantra that Covid is a minimal and passing threat. When that position becomes untenable, they speak of how China’s ‘successful’ containment of the virus is a clear example of socialism’s brilliance. Meanwhile, anonymous officials at state-run morgues and funeral parlours suggest that the official death toll – a mere 4,636 – could be at least 10 times higher.
Wang follows the virus to the United States, where the early narrative of Covid wasn’t all that different. Claims of the virus being ‘just the flu’ become dominant talking points, with even Dr. Anthony Fauci dismissing masks and lockdowns. Then, like China, the narrative shifts and the cities empty. The difference, of course, is that no Americans were arrested for raising their concerns, unlike the tragic case of Li Wenliang. However, we see that a handful of Americans were fired for their cautionary opinions, reminding us that authoritarian groupthink is not contained to the world’s dictatorship.
Nanfu Wang has done well in capturing the early narratives of Covid-19. There are no revelations, but her insights are compelling all the same. As we learn to live with the virus, Wang should consider a follow up.