Nanfu Wang interview: ‘In the Same Breath’ director
Nanfu Wang has had to deal with Chinese authorities targeting her family for several years, but the work she’s done for “In the Same Breath” has lead to the most serious instance of this intimidation. “This one was the most serious because three of my family members in different places were taken to police stations,” she tells us during our recent webchat (watch the exclusive video interview above). Authorities from the Chinese Communist Party have interrogated her mother and other family members due to her other documentaries about China, but the danger posed this time was on another level. “This one, the threats were if I were to ever make a film about China again, they would arrest my brother and my uncle.”
“In the Same Breath,” which is currently streaming on HBO Max, examines the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic in both China and the United States. It shows that when the virus first started spreading in their countries, both faced a lot of early confusion but also similar messaging by the people in charge who tried to influence the public perception through incorrect information. Wang’s previous film, “One Child Nation,” was nominated at the 2020 Emmy Awards for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
Wang’s desire to chronicle the initial COVID-19 outbreak started during a visit to see family in China in January of 2020. “Everything seemed to be normal. There were rumors about a pneumonia and at the time the government had punished people, whoever was talking about this new pneumonia.” The day she returned was the day Wuhan went into lockdown and since her son was still in China, she needed to find out all she could to get him back to the States. “During those few days of gathering information I realized that what the government had been telling people was not the same as the reality.”
Having to direct camera crews who were on the other side of the world may have seemed like a complex task but Wang quickly found it to be quite invigorating. “I realized very quickly how liberating it was because we started with some photographers and then we quickly realized things were happening really fast and we have ones to go to the hospital and another person to follow the ambulance.” Her direction to these people usually consisted of a phone call with very detailed instructions with specific visual references. “Once they send the footage back the footage has to upload to a system that we built. I could see the footage within a few hours after they shot and then give them additional directions on how to film the next day.”