Director: Nanfu Wang
Sometime last year, just as New York was starting to become the coronavirus epicenter of the West, I thought of Nanfu Wang. Up until then, my reading of the pandemic was largely derived from the textual coverage of international publications. I had devoured every long-form piece and photo essay. In my head, all the vividly written snapshots of devastation, empathy and grief were translated into visuals. Like fever dreams, most accounts were so evocative that I still can’t remember if I had actually witnessed those scenes or just imagined them. But I knew these were the vignettes of tragedy. They were words about emotions. It was human reportage, because there was simply no time for the rational rigours of investigative journalism (yet). Everyone wanted answers, but the questions were too daunting – too distant – to pose. With the close-ups in place, I waited for the lens to zoom out. Every crisis deserves a reckoning.
In The Same Breath is better than a reckoning – by refusing to be one. Of course, it had to be Nanfu Wang. The disease itself held a narrative within its journey, dramatically bookended by the pillars of opposing worlds: Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, in the communist winds of the East, before ravaging the populist shores of the West. As a Chinese-born filmmaker who now lives in New Jersey, Wang was – by fate – in a unique geocultural position to reveal the “big picture”. Distance affords her the courage and wherewithal to seek the unseekable. While her first (Hooligan Sparrow) and third film (One Child Nation) expose the sinister functionality of fascism, In The Same Breath also adds the dysfunctionality of democracy to the mix. The United States’ handling of the villainous outbreak – a web of ignorance, deceit and misinformation – is juxtaposed against China’s handling of its shadowy origin story. No government is beyond reproach. In the cacophony of chaos, there’s little to distinguish between the noise of patriotism and the sounds of dissent.
But it isn’t just Wang’s heritage. Most of her work is rooted in the language of personal epiphany. Her films weaponize the art of hindsight with unflinching honesty – a match made in heaven (and hell) for a pandemic that preys on the frailties of hindsight. She is, by her own admission, an enlightened soul who only recognized the slick fascism of her homeland after migrating to a free land. As a result, she critiques a culture by critiquing her own relationship with the culture – you sense she is uncovering her truth just as the viewers are discovering the truth. The “i” in her storytelling is disarming: it challenges our preconceived notions of both human and investigative reportage. Things don’t “happen,” they come to light. Moments don’t “pass,” they are recalled as memories. This style also adds a sense of clarity, a private in-point for dense and public narratives.
In The Same Breath, too, opens with the director’s ponderous voice: where she was when the city of Wuhan went into lockdown, and how she dealt with the prospect of protecting her loved ones. “I wonder” – a narrative cross between thinking and stating – becomes the prefix to some of her lines. Her filmmaker hat then acts as an extension of her human hat. Restricted to the walls of her Jersey home, Wang briefly describes the logistics of making a film under such restrictive physical circumstances – which also mirrors the challenges of locating the truth in a restrictive political environment. She speaks about hiring a group of brave camera people in Wuhan – to stake out hospitals, clinics, cemeteries and houses – to record the subtext hidden behind the propagandic text of the Chinese news platforms. She even speaks about their filming (“this shot following the paramedics through the lane was 15 minutes long”) to lend context to the graveness of Ground Zero.
Nanfu Wang’s films weaponize the art of hindsight with unflinching honesty – a match made in heaven (and hell) for a pandemic that preys on the frailties of hindsight
The final footage is startling and humbling, lending a voice to the silence of all those early articles I read about Wuhan and Italy. The vignettes of death come to life – an old father grieving the fading of his son, a doctor losing her husband, ambulances turned away from hospitals, overbooked burial sites. Wang also admits to trusting the ‘advanced machinery’ of America in early April (“I realised I bought into the idea…”) while scoffing at her locked-down mother in China. Her own shock filters through the documentary, even as she unveils evidence of State-sponsored suppression. In particular, she uses the reciting of the Chinese National Anthem to alarming effect – an indictment of a brainwashed people – in a way that wouldn’t look out of place in a Pink Floyd video. All through, the elegant incredulity of her voice never leaves us, even when it’s not scoring the images.
The fragility of Wang’s first-person perspective works on a strangely profound level. In essence, she is showing us the strings that stage her puppet show: the cameras, the process, the people following people. By doing so, she dissolves the spell of creation: she may be making a “film,” but she is in no way making the story. It already exists; only its sentences need to be assembled. The nature of the filming itself then adds to the larger suspense of the documentary. The technique also places the spotlight firmly on the messy restlessness – rather than the dry technicality – of the task. She can never be in control, even when she is. It suggests that not even Nanfu Wang, as an artist, is above the uncertainty of life. And it hints that there is perhaps no stronger virus than authoritarianism. After all, a biological illness kills humans, but an ideological illness kills humanity.