While life ground to a halt for just about everyone in 2020, Nanfu Wang had a most eventful year. Exactly 12 months ago, the Chinese-born film-maker was at the Sundance Film Festival to sit on the World Cinema Documentary jury while her two-year-old son stayed with her mother in China to prep for the New Year celebrations. But as the threat of Covid-19 grew more urgent by the day, her husband traveled to the Wang family’s remote village to safely retrieve their child. Soon, she would scuttle her plans to convene with them in Asia after wrapping things up in Park City, and start doing everything she could to coordinate the emergency return of her loved ones from a viral hotspot.
Wise enough to recognize a rich, important subject when it fell into her lap, she immediately got the wheels turning on a documentary to follow her well-feted 2019 feature One Child Nation, with the goal of taking a closer look at response on the ground in Wuhan and how it relates to the dire events unfolding in the States. She went to work making contacts with photographers and videographers in China and with journalists in the West, most of her quarantined days spent sifting through the hours of eye-opening footage sent back to her. And then in October, amidst an on-the-fly production poking the bear of a formidable authoritarian state, the MacArthur Foundation named her an official fellow and awarded her the coveted “Genius Grant.”
All of which has now circled back to a Sundance gone virtual as Wang premieres her shocking and heartrending new film In the Same Breath, a clear-eyed assessment of governmental failings on both sides of the Pacific. Last summer, Ai Weiwei’s CoroNation weighed the limited personal freedoms of Xi Jinping’s administration against its ruthless efficacy in quashing a crisis, suggesting that repression and oppression may be the cost of a national death toll around four thousand. Wang’s research calls that number into question, its most stunning revelation that “only a fool” would buy the official party line about how well everything went when the real statistics run in the tens of thousands. Her remote yet trenchant investigation found that officials wallpapered over a plague with propaganda, the cover-ups and denialism leaving the situation to fester until it became far worse than it ever had to.
The major point of divergence from the handful of coronavirus docs already released, which have honed their focus to mishandling in the US or abroad, is Wang’s efforts to connect the two. Drawing on her uniquely apropos perspective as a Chinese émigré living in the US for the last nine years, she exposes the parallels in the disinformation campaigns coming from the highest levels of authority. Though a viewer in the English-speaking world may see a trace of the dystopian in the montage of Chinese news anchors repeating the exact same lies word for word, they’re not so far removed from the clips of Trump and even public health crusader Dr Anthony Fauci urging a lax attitude in the pandemic’s early days.
Xi’s methods rely on a tightly maintained control and Trump’s seem more rooted in uncaring neglect, and still they’re joined by the impulse to create a reality of success as a way of distorting the truth. Human rights activists in the Hubei province are “disappeared” without explanation, while doctors in New Jersey get fired from their hospital jobs for speaking to the press. The anti-mask demonstrators crying hoax at town halls stateside find counterparts in the thoroughly deluded widows thanking the party for its benevolence through their tears of grief. The former group is poisoned by skepticism, the latter by credulousness, two sides of a single coin.
Wang builds her political theses around such intimate moments, some touching on her own life. Sobbing mourners recall how they couldn’t hold or see their spouses and parents as they died; ambulance workers race around the city in search of a hospital that won’t turn them away. Passages of pulverizing sadness illustrate the fallout of decisions made in the corridors of power, the real-life stakes charging the reportage with terrible, immediate emotion. So potently poignant are these images that an artistic flourish near the end in which time reverses itself to imagine how it all should have played out lands like an overreach, too false in the face of shattering realness.
Business as usual has largely resumed in Wuhan, but Wang’s film contends that that’s just the problem. The same apparatuses of messaging and censorship are still in operation, ensuring that the full extent of the malfeasance may never be fully known. Those survivors of the virus still need to live in a country bent on order over all else, whether that’s over there or over here. Their psychological scarring will last long into the future.