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Film

In the Same Breath

In the Same Breath

Nanfu Wang, director
Stay At Home Production Inc.
2021
95 minutes

On 1 January 2020, the Chinese state news reported that eight doctors had been arrested for spreading rumors about a new form of pneumonia. This brief report would inadvertently become the first official acknowledgement of COVID-19. In the Same Breath, by filmmaker Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation), examines the impact that misinformation about the coronavirus has had on people in China and the United States.

As the documentary begins, Wang recounts how she was returning to the United States from China on 23 January 2020, the same day that the lockdown in Wuhan was announced. After chest x-rays started flooding Chinese social media platforms because the hospitals were overwhelmed, she assembled a team of 10 camera people who risked arrest as they documented life under lockdown and captured the drama that was unfolding.

“When the government is telling us where to look, they’re also telling us where not to look,” advises Wang. Footage from Chinese New Year celebrations and large government meetings where Communist Party leaders assured the Chinese public and the rest of the world that everything was under control is juxtaposed with contemporaneous social media posts, footage of busy hospital wards, off-camera interviews with scared patients and frustrated hospital staff, and closed-circuit camera footage of patients with respiratory symptoms seeking care in December 2019 at a clinic located near the market where the virus is thought to have originated.

Turning the lens from China to the United States, Wang’s U.S. camera team captured footage documenting how misinformation likewise wreaked havoc on the U.S. health care system, as evidenced by the number of deaths witnessed by traumatized health care workers and by the emergence of large groups of pandemic-denying protesters. Even as both countries’ leadership cited the other as a foil to extol their own virtues, the film reveals how citizens in China and the United States became casualties in what would ultimately become a futile quest to maintain appearances.

The film ends with scenes from Wuhan’s eerily “normal” 2020 New Year’s Eve celebrations. As fireworks explode over packed city streets, Wang reminds us that normality has led to our current circumstances. Insisting on rushing back to normal, she cautions, is not the answer.

Editor’s note: The content of this review is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. FDA.

About the author

Division of Biotechnology Manufacturing, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Silver Spring, MD 20993, USA