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The Documentary that Reveals the Scene Inside Wuhan During the Earliest Days of the Pandemic

The documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang grew up in central China, not far from Wuhan, where the first cases of the coronavirus were detected, fourteen months ago. She has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, and witnessed the disastrous responses to the pandemic in both countries. Early in 2020, Wang assembled a team of camera people, producers, and field researchers to capture what was unfolding in Wuhan, and later added various locations in the U.S. The resulting film, “In the Same Breath,” which had its world première at Sundance, defies the obfuscation and misinformation that has characterized the COVID-19 crisis, documenting how government lies can ruin the lives of ordinary people. Wang is a seasoned chronicler of China—her films include “Hooligan Sparrow,” about the struggles of women’s-rights activists, and “One Child Nation,” which explores the legacy of three decades of the state’s single-child policy. Her latest documentary delivers empathetic and often harrowing scenes from the homes, hospitals, and streets of Wuhan. “In the Same Breath” will screen this month at the SXSW festival. I spoke with Wang on Zoom; our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is it like to make a documentary film about the pandemic when we are still living through it?

In a way, it feels therapeutic and cathartic. We all experience so many emotions, whether it’s helplessness, anger, or longing for a connection. I felt all of these things, too, especially in the very beginning. Seeing what was going on in Wuhan, every Chinese person wished that we could do something. That feeling of anger, sadness, and powerlessness lasted as we later experienced the outbreak in America. As a filmmaker, I feel grateful that I have the skill set to articulate the feelings that a lot of people share but don’t necessarily have a channel to express.

Was there a sense that this felt like tracking a moving target?

No. I didn’t feel like I was following breaking news. When the first wave hit New York, last March, I was forced to confront my preconceived notions about America. In China, it’s almost the default that information is restricted. But seeing how the same forms of disinformation and misinformation could come from the American government and its leaders, and then spread among the public—that was shocking. That was one of the themes that I tried to explore in the film.

The other central theme is how history is made. China, being the first to have the outbreak and the first to lift the quarantine, has already written its version of the pandemic. In real time, I saw how quickly the government shaped the narrative and formed a strikingly different “reality.” That “reality” started to replace people’s actual memories. I was amazed by that, and I wanted to present it to the viewer.

You started filming in the early days of the outbreak. When did you realize something of truly historic importance was happening?

Right away. I think it was around January 24th. I paid close attention to social-media posts that were coming out of Wuhan. The lockdown order was shocking to all of us. Access to information during those days was lacking. I didn’t trust the government’s version in the first place, but, soon, I saw how quickly the government was censoring information on a matter of life and death. Every time I forwarded a post to a friend in China, the friend would say, “I couldn’t see this.” It was the same with the posts my friends forwarded to me. The government was deleting things by the minute. So my instinct was to archive them.

At first, it wasn’t really for any purpose, let alone for making a documentary. But I could see on Weibo that thousands of people were dying and seeking help, and the government not only didn’t help them but it was censoring this outcry for help. At the time, I didn’t know if matters were getting worse, or if more people were going to die. That was really what motivated me to make a documentary. If it wasn’t documented, would this part of history be completely lost? Would the government’s narrative be the only version that people would see?

You managed to assemble a tenacious team of camera people, who appear anonymously in the credits, conducting interviews inside hospitals, shadowing an ambulance crew, and getting inside a funeral home. How did you manage to do that?

Getting inside Wuhan was really difficult. We couldn’t really publicize hiring or post about it on social media. We started with a few trusted contacts. Gradually, I was introduced to a handful of people. Each of those conversations was interesting—it was almost like a spy novel. I tried to understand the political views of each person, without asking very direct questions that would cause suspicion. The Wuhan outbreak was a time when the central government and local government emphasized over and over: do not talk to “foreign hostile forces”—they are evil and trying to sabotage our government. When I talked to people, it was hard to tell from the initial conversation whether that person would feel comfortable working on a film that could be critical of the government or if that person would report us to the authorities.

I also needed to assess when to reveal the previous work I’ve done. I introduce myself as a filmmaker. Sometimes when I mention that I live in the U.S., it becomes a deal breaker. People immediately associate that with “foreign hostile forces” or think they’d be “leaking national secrets.” Once we established trust, we carefully assigned something for them to work on, saw the result, and evaluated. Once we did a couple of shoots, I was able to tell their personality and who is good at what, as well as their political views—we have people who are very pro-government who worked on the film, too. I have never worked with so many collaborators on one film.

How large is your team?

We had ten cinematographers in China and ten in the U.S., as well as four producers besides me coördinating the shoots. The shoots were all one-man-band or two people at most. In China, we had three field producers and three production assistants who contacted people—on Weibo, there were thousands of people posting their X-rays, and we called at least five hundred of them. We talked for hours and hours with each one. The two-minute voice montage in the film came out of the five hundred phone calls.

I know that reporting access inside the hospitals was really restricted.

To film inside a hospital, or any kind of government-run facility, one has to have approval from the propaganda department. We had a few camera people who had government credentials. They had major concerns, because they are known and you can track things back to them. So that was a conversation about what the footage would serve and what we could do to obscure their identities.

Have any of your collaborators suffered retaliation so far?

We have three: a production assistant, a field producer, and a camera person. With this large team, we carefully assigned each person just a portion of the work. They were not aware of the entire scope of the film; each person had only seen their piece. If you look at each individual piece, it’s not too sensitive. It is the assembly of it that contains more opinion and is more critical. The three people don’t know one another, they live in different places, and there was no direct communication between them. One of them was contacted by the police [last] March, another in April, and the third in May. Each of them was questioned by the police for hours. One was from 8 P.M. to 2 A.M.

One of them was so intimidated that she not only stopped working on this project but is considering quitting documentary filmmaking as a career. For that, I feel very sad. I can see the chilling effect that it could have on people who live in China. The two other people, after they were questioned, told me that all of their communications with me, including e-mails and phone records, had to be handed over to the police.

A number of citizen journalists emerged to report on Wuhan during the crisis. Among them was Zhang Zhan, who was recently sentenced to four years in prison for her reporting, and Chen Qiushi, who disappeared last February and is now reportedly “under government supervision.” In the film, you made the connection between the early whistle-blowers like Li Wenliang and these citizen journalists. Is there place for people like these in today’s China?

The place is prison. Eight doctors were punished on December 31st [2019], and the news came out on January 1st. [Eight people, all of them likely physicians, were reprimanded by the Wuhan police for “spreading rumors” about a SARS-like virus spreading in Wuhan, before the government confirmed that the “rumors” were true.] Zhang Zhan was arrested in May [2020], and her sentence was handed down on December 28th. That’s a full year. Not much has changed. The level of censorship during the Wuhan outbreak is more severe than anything that I saw making “Hooligan Sparrow” and “One Child Nation.”

Does fear of potential retaliation against you weigh on your creative process?

No. It will get more and more difficult—every time I make a film, I don’t know if there will be another chance of going back and doing another film. So I’m going to take every opportunity as if it’s the last one and treasure it.

In both China and the U.S., we have heard a lot of emphasis on “heroism.” Health-care workers, delivery drivers, and teachers deserve all the praise in the world, but by emphasizing these individuals pulling societies through tough times, what are we missing?

When we promote heroism and celebrate individuals, it’s absolutely right. It is something that we should do. But it distracts us from looking into the question of who was responsible. There is the danger of feeling emotional and blindly grateful when we stop asking critical questions. It’s almost like the feeling you get from watching soap operas—you can be moved to tears and have all the feelings, but, in the end, you don’t ask any questions. When I talked to nurses, they talked about the seven o’clock clapping. On the one hand, they appreciated it. But, at the same time, they said, what is the use of clapping if people are not holding the government accountable? What does the clapping do?

Do you think the Chinese government has convinced the majority of Chinese citizens that the state has done a good job? After all, Chinese people were able to return to a somewhat normal life beginning last summer.

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