COVID-19 Documentary 'In the Same Breath' Warns Against the Old Normal

From the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, we review Nanfu Wang's latest documentary, which chronicles the COVID-19 pandemic as only she can.

In the Same Breath
Sundance Institute

Who’s ready for life to go back to normal? If you’re tired of the temporary “new norm” of life during a pandemic — wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings and digital learning and, especially, sickness and deaths by the half-million — you may be wishing to go back to the way things were before COVID-19. But that’s actually the wrong way to be thinking. As Nanfu Wang explains in her documentary In the Same Breath, how things were before is how we got where we are today.

That’s not to say a deadly coronavirus was completely avoidable — though maybe it was — but the spread of the virus and the spread of misinformation and propaganda have been worse in the hands of current superpower governments representing both the free world and its antithesis. In the Same Breath, similar to Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control, sheds a lot of light on how China and the United States mishandled the COVID-19 outbreak and caused far more casualties than there could and should have been.

In the Same Breath makes more of an effort, and more of a point, however, to compare the two nations, without acknowledging one as doing a better or worse job than the other. Suppression of speech and media, particularly during a disaster, is never okay. Yet freedom is only great so long as it doesn’t mean your neighbor threatens your safety by way of their “right” not to follow recommended health guidelines. Each country has had its faults and successes in the global tragedy, but rather than explicit recognition of some of China’s lockdown measures as positive, as Chinese officials have certainly done themselves through celebratory propaganda, Wang ultimately hints that the downside to a heavier hand in situations like this is the push in the direction of more authoritarian powers.

Unlike Totally Under Control and some other COVID-19 documentaries made so far, In the Same Breath isn’t really an immediate history lesson meant to just tell us or show us what happened during its one-year chronicle of events between New Year’s 2020 and January 1, 2021. Wang’s documentaries are more personal essays that provide a subjective first-person approach to their subjects while exploring both micro-level and macro-level storytelling. This film begins with her experience of being in China at the start of 2020, for instance, then leaving her young child with a grandparent for the holidays, and how she and her husband had to suddenly go and get their son out of the country in mid-January.

From her home in New York City, Wang had journalists in China send her footage or conduct interviews for the film. She also regularly archived reports and footage on social media that were quickly censored by the Chinese government. All of it comes to us through her filter, though, as she makes sense of it, and even when she doesn’t. She relatably acknowledges her own ignorance and misunderstanding and missteps, especially early on, as she shares her own attitudes about COVID-19 over time. She initially thought it would be no big deal in the US but also reveals how concerned and appropriate she was when her son showed symptoms. I’m sure that, despite her not mentioning it directly, she also wondered and worried if her family played any part in the spread with their own travel.

For much of the film, though, even with the constant narration giving us Wang’s personal perspective on the first year of the pandemic, I couldn’t tell where it was going, and this made me restless. Documentaries are in a difficult place right now in that so much media saturation is dating a lot of material very quickly. A lot of the information and stories here can feel too familiar and common — and it’s actually a twofold matter since they’re yesterday’s news as well as today’s and tomorrow’s. The content is both too late and too soon. It’s temporarily and physically distant, yet it still feels too close to home right now. This isn’t the only film sometimes suffering from the overwhelming circumstances of the times. When it’s all thought about in the context of Wang’s duality as a Chinese-born American resident, however, it makes a lot of sense and can be better appreciated. In the end, she makes it work.

After having us re-experience 2020 through her eyes, the filmmaker’s intent with the doc comes across most clearly in the final moments, and In the Same Breath finds its real strength with this directness. We’re still left with plenty to question with regards to how something like COVID-19 should be dealt with outside of the need for transparency with the public, which is just acknowledging a problem, not a solution to the problem. But the general notion and fear that little is going to be learned from what went wrong, or that the improper sort of changes may occur, strike deeply. That it’s not over, that we’ve just begun a new year with the potential for things to improve or get worse, gives the film weight.

In the Same Breath would play differently had the US presidential election gone another way, of course. But even if the film alarms about the worst case scenario, it should also be seen as cautionary about complacency with a greater of two paths. We may yearn for a return to the seemingly comfortable past, but Wang urges us to look forward and move forward, as scary and difficult as that might be, instead of standing still, and to be more perceptive than ever.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.