SXSW 2021: ‘In the Same Breath’ is a Personal & Unfiltered Look at the Coronavirus Outbreak

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In the Same Breath

In the Same Breath makes its Texas premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in the festival Favorites film screening section. The 99-minute documentary is directed and narrated by Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation) and executive produced by Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller. The film is also produced by Wang, Jialing Zhang, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, and Carolyn Hepburn. The film’s editing is done by Wang and Michael Shade. In the Same Breath is a documentary that tells the story of the origin and spread of the novel coronavirus from Wuhan to the United States.

In the Same Breath recounts the origin and spread of the novel coronavirus from the earliest days of the outbreak in Wuhan, China to its rampage across the world and explores the parallel campaigns of misinformation waged by leadership and the devastating impact on citizens of both China and the United States from a deeply personal perspective. Told through emotional, first-hand accounts and shocking, on-the-ground footage, the film traces a revelatory map of cover-ups and misinformation while also highlighting the strength and resilience of the healthcare workers, activists, and family members who risked everything to communicate the truth.

In the Same Breath gives a uniquely personal and unfiltered look at the start of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Early on, the documentary showed the tight grip the Chinese government had on how information on the coronavirus was portrayed to the public. “The Communist Party needs to fully control the media, the public relations, and ideology,” is one of the many statements from officials.

The documentary touches on how the government acted swiftly to silence anyone that dared to show actual footage of what was happening or criticize the Chinese government, whether it was done personally or publicly online. This was done in order to keep up the appearance of having a superior system for controlling the virus. In the Same Breath even discusses the sacrifices made by dozens of activists and journalists who spoke out about the virus but disappeared without a trace or were sentenced to prison for publishing information about the pandemic in China.

There are several moments throughout the documentary that I have to applaud the filmmakers for capturing the truth and being brave enough to tell this story. In the Same Breath seeks to tell the whole story of the earliest days of the outbreak and shows a side of the outbreak in China that most people around the world could not see. For example, the documentary exposes the number of deaths in Wuhan’s COVID-19 death toll. While it was publicly reported to be about 3,300, the estimation based on an anonymous funeral home worker puts the death toll number between 10,000 to 20,000.

Another thing about In the Same Breath is the surprising revelations they are able to discover and connect. At the beginning stages of the outbreak, the film shows numerous people being turned away from medical care at hospitals and either being told that that they did not have the resources or not being given a reason that made sense at all.

However, through some research, the filmmakers were able to deduce that the doctors who first to discovered the virus and tried to warn everyone worked at most of the same hospitals that turned people away. The filmmakers make the connection that is very likely that these hospitals were aware of the virus as early as December 1, 2019, a date much earlier than was communicated to the public. However, out of fear of punishment from the government, they did not say anything.

The film explains one possible reason why the seriousness of the virus was not announced sooner. This was due to the congress meeting that was held at the beginning of the year. The congress lasted two weeks, all the while the virus spread, but no announcement of it was made. Two days after the congress ended the government finally announced that the virus could spread between people, while also still pushing a message of it being controllable and preventable.

Throughout the film, there are several harrowing moments. From seeing people literally die in the streets because they were denied care or told their symptoms were nothing to worry about to seeing family members being forced to choose between possibly having their loved ones die waiting to be admitted, die in pain at home, or to die alone with no one by their side.

One of the interviewees, Tao Wenbin, recounts the final moments he shared with his son via video call because he could not see him in person. “The last time I called him he could barely speak. He could only move his mouth. The last thing he could slowly say to me was, ‘Can you come see me? I miss you. I’m scared.'” 

One of the things that I liked about In the Same Breath was how the use of aerial shots and footage were used to contribute to the story. While the images captured from the sky look amazing they were also harrowing. In one scene, while Wang narrates about contacting the people that posted their symptoms on social media, the drone camera shows a huge apartment complex. This is just another example of the tragic truth this documentary unveiled: that there were far more casualties than what was reported.

As the documentary goes on, the focus and setting shift from China to the United States of America. The documentary shows how America’s government officials managed and conveyed information about the virus similar to what was done in China. For example, political leaders assured citizens there was no threat, reflecting how China assured their citizens. All the while, both countries portrayed the situation as being under their control and manageable when really neither of them had a firm grasp on the situation.

Something I found to be extremely eye-opening in the documentary was the depiction of first-hand experiences of American healthcare workers.  In an interview, Diana Torres, a nurse at a hospital in New York, recounts how she was concerned about the virus and asked supervisors if the hospital was prepared after she saw online footage of hospitals in China. While the hospital told her that they were preparing for the virus, in actuality they were not.

“It’s kind of like walking into a fire, but you have nothing to stop the fire. And here you are, raising the alarm and trying to call for help and everybody is brushing you off. I was accused of causing hysteria and spreading rumors,” Torres recounts. The film shows the patterns of how medical staff were punished and silenced when they tried to speak out about the virus and raise concerns.

In addition to capturing healthcare workers’ first-hand experience in their jobs, the documentary also captures the invisible trauma that many of them carry.  The footage showed how healthcare workers were overwhelmed, put at risk, and witnessed death on daily basis. “It felt like hell on earth. It has become a recurring scene in my nightmares,” one anonymous healthcare recounts.  

I really appreciated the moments throughout the documentary where Wang includes her own personal experience with the pandemic. I felt Wang brought a unique perspective to the documentary since she is a citizen of both China and the United States. She is essentially living through the disaster of the pandemic twice. And to hear her talk about the emotions she felt as things constantly changed day by day really touches me on a deep emotional level.

The fears about the virus spreading and infecting her parents, concern for loved ones you can’t be near, and being worried about how the government is managing the pandemic. These are all things that so many people can relate to, given that all have been living and trying to survive through this ongoing pandemic too.

Lastly, In the Same Breath shows how the United States of America and China were two sides of the same coin in this pandemic. As the film approaches the end the documentary shows footage of various American protests calling the virus a conspiracy or political agenda. Several American protesters on footage said that the government was violating their liberty and felt that America was being more like a Communist county like China. “I have lived under authoritarianism. I have lived in a society that calls itself free. In both systems, ordinary people become casualties of their leaders’ pursuit of power,” Wang narrates.

Overall, In the Same Breath offers a personal and unfiltered look at the earliest days of the outbreak in Wuhan. To be honest, this film is a lot to take in emotionally. To watch the first-hand experiences and hear people recount the final moments with their loved ones is heart-wrenching. To see the invisible trauma that weighs on numerous medical workers’ minds and spirits as they try to help as best they can. It is infuriating to see how both countries’ mismanagement and misinformation of the virus put so many people in dire situations that we are still facing today.

Nonetheless, I am glad I watched this film and I heavily encourage others to watch this film. Through amazing yet harrowing cinematography, In the Same Breath reveals so many truths and tells the stories that need to be told for so many people personally affected by this pandemic and the sacrifices they made.

In the Same Breath premiered at SXSW 2021 and is available to stream now on HBO Max.

In the Same Breath


Overall, In the Same Breath offers a personal and unfiltered look at the earliest days of the outbreak in Wuhan. To be honest, this film is a lot to take in emotionally. To watch the first-hand experiences and hear people recount the final moments with their loved ones is heart-wrenching.

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