Movies

How Nanfu Wang Made the COVID Doc China Doesn’t Want You to See

The new movie compares the American and Chinese responses to the pandemic and finds disturbing parallels.

A crowd of Chinese people all wearing surgical masks and holding up little Chinese flags
Sundance Institute/Peter Hurley

Nanfu Wang’s documentary In the Same Breath opens the virtual version of the Sundance Film Festival this year, but its story effectively begins at Sundance last year, which opened on the same day as the COVID lockdown in Wuhan. Wang, who was raised in neighboring Jiangxi province, has lived in the United States for nine years, but she’d just left her 2-year-old son with her mother for the Chinese New Year, and found herself frantically trying to figure out if the lockdown meant she’d be unable to retrieve him. The New Year’s fireworks, Wang recalls in the film, were the last time anything felt normal, although, as the movie documents, COVID had already been spreading for more than a month. With the help of local camerapeople in Wuhan and the U.S., Wang’s movie chronicles how quickly things spiraled out of control, and how dedicated the state apparatus in both countries was to preventing us from realizing it. Wang has made movies in China and the U.S. before, but this is the first movie to span both, and the perspective is eye-opening. In the growing minigenre of COVID documentaries, it’s already standard for the story to start in China and move to the U.S., but Wang’s keeps going back and forth, drawing provocative comparisons between Chinese citizens saturated in government propaganda and MAGA types who think the outbreak is fake news. It’s the first movie I’ve seen to suggest that COVID is only a part of a larger crisis whose end we are nowhere near seeing, and which we can’t inoculate ourselves against with a shot or two.

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We talked via Zoom earlier this week. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sam Adams: You mention in the movie that you were on a “work trip” when the Wuhan lockdown started. That was actually opening night of Sundance 2020, where you were on the documentary jury.

Nanfu Wang: It was really a perfect storm for us because my husband and I, we have a son who was about 2½ at the time, and we hadn’t had a vacation, just the two of us, for three years. So we thought while I was on the jury was the perfect opportunity that my husband would join me in Utah, we would watch movies together with the plus-one pass, and we would pick my son up after Sundance. And then of course, all of this happened. We had to change plans.

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My husband went to China to pick him up while Wuhan was locked down, and the other parts of the country were starting to lock down too. He is American and he doesn’t speak Chinese, and my village is so remote that from Beijing [or] Shanghai to my village still takes another three-hour flight and two hours of a bus ride to get to my family. It was crazy that he was trying to communicate and taking my son out and going through all of this with the language barrier, and I was at Sundance just refreshing my news feed, trying to figure out what was going on, how dangerous it was.

So much of living through this pandemic has been about trying to figure out what’s going on from afar, endlessly refreshing screens just to get a hint. It seems like you got that very early and very dramatically.

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The feeling of the time was, were we overreacting, or were we paranoid, or is this really severe? Do we need to do this? With the limited information, especially from China, we didn’t know what was true. We didn’t know whether we should trust the official announcement, which seemed to be much more contained. And then we were debating, because it’s a very big thing for us to travel. We had just dropped off our son there. And so we were debating, discussing. We got tickets, we returned them, we got them again, and we refunded them. From hour to hour, the decisions were shifting based on what we saw and what we learned.

Headshot of Nanfu Wang
Nanfu Wang. Sundance Institute
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I know when you were making One Child Nation, which is about the Chinese government’s one-child policy, you and your director took special precautions in case you were detained, tracking each other’s GPS and such. Obviously, going back during the pandemic poses special challenges, but in general how much are you free to come and go?

Every time I made a film about China, going back to the country again was a test, because we never knew what was going to happen. Would they allow me in, and would there be confrontation? January [2020] was the first time I went after I made One Child Nation, which was a year after its premiere, and nothing happened.

So I came back and started making In the Same Breath, and we knew that we would encounter some difficulties. But the level of censorship and surveillance was never like I had seen before. I think it’s because the whole world has its eyes on Wuhan. And the Chinese government really wanted to restrict access to Wuhan and to the hospitals. So everybody who had access to film, not only in the hospitals but even in the city, was very strictly vetted. People had to have paperwork to do that. And that was something that I never experienced before, even making Hooligan Sparrow and One Child Nation. Because it’s when you touch on some sensitive topics, then you attract attention and the scrutiny from the government. But with this one it was just overall, anything about the outbreak was going to be examined by the authorities.

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You couldn’t shoot In the Same Breath yourself, so you relied on a small army of cinematographers. How did you find them?

We had about 10 people filming in China, and roughly 10 people in the U.S. too. And the process of finding the cinematographers was a complicated one. First, we needed to find people who were inside Wuhan and could get access from the official channels, because any private freelancers would be hard to get into the hospital or even go out of their apartments. The eventual 10 cinematographers in Wuhan, I would say half of them were people that I already knew and collaborated with before, and the other half of them were people that I didn’t know. And that was tricky because the film is sensitive. Sometimes I didn’t know what the cinematographers’ political views were, and if we weren’t careful, this person could easily, after the first phone call, go to the authorities and report what we are doing—and that would be the end of the entire shoot. I was carefully gauging the other person’s response. If I mentioned Hooligan Sparrow or One Child Nation, it could go either way. People could be like, Oh, wow, you are the person who made this. I admire that. Or it’s like, Oh, my God, I can’t be close, I can’t be working on this. This is, like, the person who’s the traitor. It’s a very complex process of getting to the point of, OK, this person we can trust, or they can trust me.

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Are there people who think of you that way, as a traitor?

There are, definitely. That’s how the films, or me sometimes, were portrayed by the official narrative. Because they see anything that is critical about the government, about the country, as you are being a traitor or working with the foreign hostile forces and trying to sabotage the Chinese government, the Communist Party.

You talk a bit in the new film about the Chinese government’s insistence on portraying “positive stories” from the COVID epidemic, and that’s an attitude that seems to be shared by a lot of Chinese people as well. There are people who don’t want to say things that could make the country look bad or give ammunition to the country’s enemies. As a filmmaker who has made movies critical of China, do you ever feel that impulse? Not to make propaganda necessarily, but to balance out the criticisms.

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Yeah, my answer would be no. I’m conscious what things were not positive. And I, as a storyteller, as a filmmaker, and as a citizen, I felt that it’s my responsibility to expose that and to reveal that, to raise awareness so people could see. That’s the only way I feel you could really push the country to move forward, to improve, and hold the authorities accountable. But it’s an interesting question, because sometimes when I have conversations with my husband and we’re talking about China and America, and he would catch me, saying, “This is you defending your country.” That sense of a patriotism, I think, is so buried in each one of us. We all have the sense of belonging and identity and pride in our own country. And I think it’s only problematic when that patriotism is being taken advantage of by the authorities.

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You’ve made films in China and in the U.S., but this is the first you’ve made in both countries, and it’s really interesting when the scene shifts and we see you treating the parade of government misinformation in the U.S. from the early days of the pandemic the same way you treated the Chinese government’s propaganda—especially Anthony Fauci saying that COVID isn’t something Americans need to be worrying about, and that we shouldn’t be wearing masks. It’s jarring to be reminded how much of what we were being told, even by people who apparently had good intentions, was flat-out wrong.

I think sometimes we forgot that the situation in America today is not a result of one person. It’s not just Trump, although he has so much responsibility in getting us to where we are today. For me, as an outsider, it was more shocking to see how the U.S. responded to the outbreak than it was seeing it in China. I think I have this internalized bias, maybe, towards China, and I felt it wasn’t surprising that there would be propaganda, that there was a cover-up. But when I finally saw it happening in the U.S., that was shocking, because my preconceived notion about America is that it’s this democratic country where there is freedom. So it forces me to confront my own bias, and that was what drove me through the editing process and the filming process of the past year.

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The most striking aspect of In the Same Breath for me is how you treat the people in MAGA hats who don’t believe that COVID is real—not as deranged loons but as people who are responding in their own misguided way to a climate of misinformation. Coming from a country with state-run media and widespread censorship, it seems as if you understand where they are coming from, but you also understand the extremely dangerous potential they represent.

That part is so difficult and tricky, to find the balance. Everybody already has preconceived notions and they’ve already made up their minds of how they wanted to think about these people. When I started watching the [anti-lockdown] protests, that was my first reaction too. But then the more I watched them, I realized maybe it is my desire to understand them, to empathize with them, and to try to see all of us as human beings—rather than there is a hierarchy, moral or intellectual superiority in one way or another.

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Right.

When I really had the patience and the open mind to listen to them, I realized we are all the same in a way. We all want certain things. We all want transparency. We all want accurate information. And especially with the experience of coming from China, knowing how somebody could firmly believe in something that was not true. I would never look at any of the subjects in China who say they love, they admire, they appreciate Xi Jinping and they appreciate what the Chinese government does with contempt or with disgust. I would never do that. Because I know what they came from, and I know what made this happen.

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So with that same sentiment, I wanted to look at the Trump supporters and understand what they came from and why they are believing what they believe today. I wanted to convey that to the audience and invite them to not immediately reject the other side of voices, but more so to open up and to try to see the rationale behind them. Maybe through that way we can finally look at the source of the problem and not just see the people as the problems themselves.

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One of the most interesting moments in the film is when you describe being in New York in early March, and your mother is calling you from China, trying to convince you that COVID is really bad and you need to wear a mask. And you’re telling her no, it’s not like China, the experts say everything is fine here.

At that moment, I was confused. I think it was challenging what I thought America was. I immediately thought the information in China, and what my mom was telling me, was not right. Because this is what I trusted, the experts in America, which I suppose I had a different level of trust in, previously.

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How is your mom doing now?

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She’s good. In China, the testing and the quality is really effective. It’s completely opposite. It’s so interesting to see how the two systems, they’re almost like on the opposite spectrum of politics and measures, but then at the same time, they have so much overlapping and in common.

It’s easy for COVID to seem like the biggest problem in the world right now, but you end the movie suggesting that the response to it has laid bare the potential for an even greater danger, which is the rise of authoritarianism in the U.S.

There were two biggest fears that I had just over the last year. One is if people look at this and it’s like, Oh, this is an unavoidable disaster. Chinese people think this way. I think in the U.S. now probably less people are thinking that way. But in China, definitely everybody felt, Well, the government did the best, and this is inevitable. They use the analogy it’s like going to war, that death is just inevitable. I think we’re all eager to forget, we’re all eager to put it behind and not think about it again. And if that happens, then what have we learned from it? And that would be, to me, a scary thing.

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And the other thing, more scary, is I realize how effective the propaganda in China is. That not only most of its citizens believe the narrative that was put out, that the government did a great job and handled it really well, but also, from my observation, it’s really effective outside too, internationally. Especially with the U.S. as a contrast, most people in the world looked at China and really thought, Wow, they did great. They managed to control it. And the reason that they reached that conclusion is partly what they are allowed to see, and that the kind of reporting that has been allowed to get out from China is so carefully crafted and controlled. My fear is if, after this, we really allow people to think the model in China was successful or effective, then it’s putting the whole world in a more dangerous place.

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