Now that we’re a year into the pandemic (and have a presidential administration that’s forging a sane response to it), the time feels right for taking stock — for looking back, in a big-picture way, at how the crisis unfolded, the ways it was mismanaged, and how we can learn from the vast pileup of mistakes and corruption. Nanfu Wang, the director of the wounding and disturbing documentary “In the Same Breath,” has made exactly that kind of movie. But Wang, the Chinese-American director of “One Child Nation,” “I Am Another You,” and “Hooligan Sparrow,” doesn’t work in the detached “objective” mode of a “Frontline” documentary or an investigative newspaper report. Her approach has always been insistently personal and anecdotal, and “In the Same Breath” is her up-close, eye-opening diary of the early days of the pandemic, as it took root in Wuhan and New York City.
The film opens with images of New Year’s Eve in Wuhan, a metropolis of skyscrapers lined with color-coordinated lights. It’s a crowd-surging celebration to rival the iconic one in Times Square. Except that this was Dec. 31, 2019, which meant the coronavirus was already out there. So what we’re seeing is a jaw-dropping superspreader event.
Wang, who moved to the United States nine years ago (she lives in New Jersey), grew up in a rural farming village in Jiangxi Province, 200 miles from Wuhan, and she goes back on an annual basis to visit her family for the Chinese New Year. She was there with her two-year-old son during the first stirrings of the pandemic, and this meant that she witnessed the Chinese government’s response to it. The first oblique reference to the virus on state media occurred when newscasters announced that “eight people were punished for spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia.”
Those people were doctors who identified the threat as a coronavirus, and discussed it in a group chat. That was a courageous thing to do, but the government, in clamping down on them, sent a message that was really a warning: “We control the information — and as of now, there is no virus.” The first cases of COVID-19 were actually recorded in Wuhan in early December, but the Chinese government’s strategy, as Wang captures it, was to suppress all awareness of the virus, to the point that one could be arrested for posting cell-phone footage of sick people in the street on social media.
Wang, an activist filmmaker in the truest sense (she perceives a situation and acts), knew she wanted to record what was happening. She hired camera people to film what was taking place inside the hospitals of Wuhan, and it’s ominous and disquieting to see the footage she amassed of some of the first patients. There’s a surveillance-camera montage of people with cold and respiratory symptoms entering a private clinic two minutes away from the Huanan Seafood Market, the wet market where the virus was born. And there’s a glum bureaucratic passivity hanging over the hospital footage. The patients lie in their beds, but the health establishment isn’t mobilized. It was managing patients more than it was saving lives. The film asks: How could it be otherwise, when the passivity came from the top down?
“In the Same Breath” contains heartbreaking stories, many having to do with how people in Wuhan experienced the death of their family members. We see a man who’s brought his mother to the hospital in an ambulance, only to be told that there’s no room for her. He stands there with the ambulance door open, forced to decide whether to take her back home (where she’ll likely die). We hear numerous stories like one from Runzhen Chen, the owner of that clinic, who weeps in recalling how her husband was taken to the hospital, and that’s the last she ever saw of him. The hospitals were so overcrowded that there was no chance to visit, no chance for the dying to be surrounded by loved ones. At one point we see a sign outside a hospital directing people to where they can pick up the ashes of their relatives. At this point, still early in the pandemic, the official government statement was that 3,335 people had died from COVID, but Wang interviews health workers who claim, from their own experience, that the total was closer to 30,000.
We expect misinformation from the Chinese regime, but in the second half of “In the Same Breath,” Wang, returning to the U.S., surveys the situation in New York. And while we may feel we don’t need a documentary to chronicle the ignorance and terrifying indifference of the Trump administration’s reaction to the coronavirus (a perpetual scramble of damage control), Wang views this disaster from a pointed angle, drawing parallels between the Chinese and U.S. responses to it — the lack of preparedness, the burying of data, a headline in The New York Times that reads “Nurses and Doctors Speaking Out on Safety Now Risk Their Job” (the same thing happened in Wuhan), that clip of Anthony Fauci on the March 8 edition of “60 Minutes” declaring, with blithe authority, “Right now, in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks.”
“In the Same Breath” doesn’t pretend to be a definitive documentary about COVID-19. The film’s form is glancing, exploratory, open to the moment. Yet Nanfu Wang captures things that other documentaries leave out, like the private emotions bred by policies of neglect. And her theme, in the end, is larger than you think. It’s that big governments failed to control the virus because their real investment was in controlling everything else.