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#HotDocs21 Review: In the Same Breath

May 8, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

There have been several documentaries made so far about the COVID-19 pandemic, and filmmaker Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath is by far the best one that I’ve seen. The film began from a personal place for Wang, who left her young son with family near Wuhan and flew back to the United States on January 23rd, 2020, the same day that the city got locked down to stop the spread of the virus.

Wang’s film specifically looks at how China’s communist government utilized propaganda throughout the pandemic, both concealing the severity of this new coronavirus in its early stages, and using it to push a patriotic message and encourage blind trust in authorities once it started to spread. She opens the film on New Year’s, showing regular celebrations unfolding in Wuhan to ring in 2020. Meanwhile, that same day, Chinese state media reported that eight people were arrested for spreading “false rumours” about a new pneumonia.

Sensing that the pandemic was worse than authorities were letting on, Wang hired freelance camera operators to start filming in the city during the aggressive lockdown. They capture covert footage inside overcrowded hospitals, where doctors and nurses weren’t allowed to speak without permission, and patients are too scared to talk. Through this footage from inside Wuhan, along with a trove of censored social media posts that she combs through from late 2019, Wang shows how the virus was allowed to spread through censorship and misinformation.

We also hear testimonies from citizen journalists and those who had family members die from the virus, painting a much, much bleaker portrait than what we even know. The film itself traces cases of the virus back to at least December 2019, through security camera footage of sick people coming into a clinic near the wet market. Wang also calls into question Wuhan’s “official” death toll of just under four thousand, determining through reports from funeral homes and crematoriums that the actual body count could easily be up to ten times that.

Wang also draws a comparison to how misinformation about the virus was allowed to spread in the United States, with mixed messaging from the CDC in the early stages, including initially discouraging mask use, helping it take hold in major cities. In one heartbreaking sequence, she charts the explosion of cases in New York, showing how many, including herself, were blindsided by the pandemic despite many warning signs. Equally devastating are scenes of nurses breaking down in tears, with the film observing that the trauma they experienced through the pandemic will likely never leave them.

This is a gripping film that cuts through the partisan slant to offer both a compelling look at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a fearless piece of investigative journalism that peeks behind the curtain of carefully curated government propaganda. Yes, In the Same Breath provides invaluable documentation of this unprecedented moment in modern human history. But Wang’s film also becomes a powerful rebuke of authoritarianism, showing how propaganda is used to make people feel safe while keeping them from being truly free.

In the Same Breath is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

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