When “One Child Nation” director Nanfu Wang flew to China in early January of last year to see her mother and drop off her young son for a visit, little did she know at the time that the entire world was about to change. But by January 23, 2020, the Chinese government had locked down the city of Wuhan in what became a futile effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 from quickly moving around the globe and plunging society into its worst health crisis in a century.
Featuring incredible and clandestine footage recorded by Chinese citizens as well as heartbreaking interviews with American health care workers left without equipment or guidance on how to handle the coronavirus outbreak, Wang turned her personal brush with COVID-19 into the new film “In the Same Breath.” The documentary — an almost real-time history of the pandemic’s origins that dates back to December of 2019 — premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before a debut on HBO and HBO Max.
“At the time, I thought the film would be focused on Wuhan,” Wang says to Gold Derby in a new interview. “That was before the rest of the world really began to pay attention to the pandemic. Soon after, it spread to the U.S. and it was shocking to me and all of us to see it happen here. That changed the film. Every day, from hour to hour, we saw the reality change. That forced me to confront some of my own preconceived notions about the U.S. I was waking up and seeing that it could happen in the U.S. Looking back with hindsight, you could see it coming. But at the time, I wasn’t expecting it.”
In addition to the dramatic footage from inside Chinese hospitals and health clinics as the deadly virus began to take hold of the nation, Wang’s film also dives into the politicization of the pandemic and the spread of misinformation from political leaders of all stripes. “In the Same Breath” includes not just clips of former President Donald Trump downplaying the coronavirus as cases spiked, but also Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, claiming early in the pandemic that masks were not broadly necessary to slow the disease’s spread.
“The masks are important for someone who’s infected to prevent them from infecting someone else,” Dr. Fauci said to “60 Minutes” in March of last year. “Now, when you see people — and look at the films in China and South Korea, everybody is wearing a mask — right now in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks.” Dr. Fauci later admitted a concern in those early days was that health care workers would be left without masks and personal protective equipment; he has since frequently recommended strict mask-wearing and social distancing practices to ensure the coronavirus doesn’t spread.
“It’s a question that I have that has no answer,” Wang says when asked how the public’s growing mistrust of public officials can be overcome going forward. “It’s a question that not only me but the subjects in the film, the health care workers, they have that same question too. If these people who have power, who have the ability to speak and lead, who had the first access to the information, and once they abused that trust, it’s really difficult to be in that position and have all of us listen and not question them about the accuracy of the information.”
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