In January 2020, New Jersey-based filmmaker Nanfu Wang traveled to her native China with her young son to visit family. As fate would have it, the country was about to face the explosion of Covid-19, a public health emergency that would, of course, go on to envelop the entire globe.
Wang, recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, quickly embarked on a film exploring the crisis. In the Same Breath, from HBO, pays particular attention to how the Chinese government—and later the U.S. government—instinctively responded to Covid by using propaganda to shape the narrative around the pandemic.
Appearing at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary event, Wang explained that her motivation for making the film “was really witnessing the discrepancy between what the Chinese government was telling the world was happening and what the reality actually was.”
Chinese government officials downplayed the severity of the burgeoning illness and at first denied that it could be transmitted from human to human. They also punished anyone who dared contradict the official story. Wang and producer Jialing Zhang enlisted film crews in China to record what was going on.
“We had to quickly assemble a team on the ground, some of them we had never worked with before,” Zhang noted. “And then Nanfu and I would [confer] with them… on a daily basis.”
The film draws a parallel between China’s “information management” approach to Covid and the Trump administration’s efforts to downplay the severity of the disease. Trump likened Covid to the seasonal flu, and even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s most prominent public health official, initially told the American people masks weren’t needed to curtail transmission.
“That’s where the title In the Same Breath comes from, because it’s kind of two sides of the same coin, in many ways,” producer Julie Goldman said. “We started working together on the film in January and pretty quickly started to realize that what was developing here was quite frightening as well. And we knew that we had to capture that simultaneously.”
Check out the panel video above.
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