Nanfu Wang on Seeing the Future During a Pandemic Present in “In the Same Breath”

For a filmmaker gifted at taking the longview of things, time was always going to be required for Nanfu Wang to make “In the Same Breath,” only when she knew the subject was as urgent as the government response to COVID-19 in the two countries where she had roots — China and America — it was going to be impossible to take time on the back-end to tell the story properly, so she found all the ways she could to buy it for herself upfront.

“A lot of the times, the news was delayed and I knew what the news was going to post the next day before it was posted by having met people who were involved, who knew the inside and can tell you, so it often felt like the news was posting something that I knew a week ago or two weeks ago,” said Wang, who somehow turned around what may be her finest film to date in the shortest amount of time.

The only thing Wang may not have seen coming was the coronavirus itself, which originated only 200 miles away from where she was raised, but she could be immediately skeptical about the early reports out of Wuhan where a lockdown of the city had seemed aggressive for what was initially described as an unknown pneumonia. A peek at social media revealed a far different situation than what government officials were letting on, where videos of people collapsing in the streets and long lines awaiting treatment at hospitals were posted to online forums bound to be taken down by bureaucratic watchdogs, and even if the images hadn’t reminded the filmmaker of the unbearable waits she had to endure as an 11-year-old attempting to secure treatment for her father’s heart condition under normal circumstances, Wang had just wrapped up a year of touring with “One Child Nation,” a film intended to preserve the memory of all the families that had sacrificed so much during the 35-year period in which China enforced a one child policy when the country was eager to turn the page and she could see the same reshaping of a narrative for history’s sake happening again in real time.

“In the Same Breath” is no doubt timely, but it stands to become one of the most definitive documents of the COVID-19 pandemic, charting how national pride and arrogance could get in the way of mounting an effective response to prevent the spread of the virus with China fearful that its reputation could take a hit once more as it did with SARS and in America, there was similar downplaying of the virus by the media and how seriously to take it quickly became politicized along party lines. Not only was the virus itself dangerous, but the spread of disinformation that followed as well, revealing issues across countries that will take more than a vaccine to remedy and that Wang has valiantly fought against since making her staggering debut “Hooligan Sparrow” in 2016. With “In the Same Breath” now premiering on HBO after bowing earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, the filmmaker spoke about organizing such a complex shoot during COVID and only realizing later that it would touch on themes that have been prevalent in her work to date, as well as the unique experience of seeing footage shot for the film that she couldn’t be around for and deciding when you finish a film tackling a situation that’s far from over.

You had just come off of “One Child Nation,” an already massive undertaking. Was it difficult to throw yourself straight into this?

It was how the pandemic surprised everyone. How could I have planned for a film? I had already planned to work on another project and then this pandemic happened and the experience of witnessing the outbreak in China and really seeing the outbreak start in the U.S. really compelled me to make this film. I really felt I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing of the discrepancies I’d seen between what the Chinese government had been telling people [of] what was happening and what I knew was not true, so it wasn’t even a decision. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I thought only you, starting with the work you started with “Hooligan Sparrow” and carried on since, could likely mobilize a production like this and have the depth of knowledge to explore this in such a short period of time. Did you feel like the building blocks were already there from your previous work?

No. [laughs] When you look back, yes, but in the middle of making it, you see them as all different films. You don’t see how one is connected with this one until at the moment when you look back or the moment that some people point it out, like you. When I look back, I do see the common themes and I wouldn’t have made this film if I hadn’t learned the experience from [another] film, but during the making of it and the process of figuring out what this is about and why it compelled me, it was not always clear. All the films are the way that I see the world and try to make sense of the world, so I think it’s natural that I was driven by the same questions because that’s what I care about.

Did you know have an idea of what the scale would be as far as sending 10 cinematographers across China to capture what you needed?

No, it was gradual. The first step was I’ve got to find one cinematographer who has access to the hospital because what was happening there was urgent and I needed to get those stories told. I knew that outside of the hospital, a lot of people didn’t get treatment from all the social media posts and all the phone calls that I made. I learned how impossible it was for people to get a bed and to get admitted to the hospital, so I wanted to know what it looked like inside. Was it like what the government was telling people or is it a completely different situation?

That took time to find a person and [we had to] go through a bunch and then eventually find one who can do it and was willing to do it, and then from there, we didn’t say, “We found one person. Let’s stop.” It’s like, “Well, we have access to this hospital, but what’s happening with the ambulance? Are they getting people to the hospital or not?” Because we heard a lot of people are not getting to the hospital. Can we find somebody who can go inside the ambulance? So gradually we knew that we needed to cover all the different experiences that people in different places have, and it grew into this team of 10 cinematographers — we have one in the hospital, one going to sensitive places, talking to activists and that person can’t be anybody, it has to be somebody who has experience dealing with the Chinese government, and who has the courage to do that. Everything was happening so quickly. That’s why we had multiple people in different places.

As you got the footage back, you’ve said you started seeing the different personalities of who was behind the camera – how did that give this shape?

So many of the cinematographers I didn’t know personally. It was only through phone calls and Zoom and video chats, so I got a sense of who they are and their personality, but what was really telling was reviewing their footage. We were able to have them upload the footage every night after they shot so I would be able to see within a few hours and it was fascinating when you have three cinematographers filming something similar. You realize that they frame it differently, the composition is different, the angle is different and when they choose and what they choose to focus on is different. For example, if you’re filming a doctor treating a patient, whether that person chose to stay on the doctor’s face — the doctor’s point of view — or lower [the camera] and stay from the patient’s point of view, it’s a completely different way of seeing this experience. When we see cinematographers through their lens, I got to understand how he or she was thinking. The person who constantly couldn’t move the lens away from the doctor is seeing a heroic doctor figure and trying to tell the story of [what] the doctor’s experiencing. There was one cinematographer whose footage was following a doctor here and there and there was never a moment that really staying with a patient, so you get to know what they feel and what they think. I [took that into consideration with] assignments to let this person do this because you can’t make them believe something else, so why not just make them do the things they truly believe.

One of the truly remarkable sequences in the film occurs when you use the hundreds of phone calls you conducted with people struggling to get care as if they’re coming from inside an apartment building in China. How did that sequence come together?

The social media forum where all the people posted their ID and address and name, that was the origin of the film – it was seeing that and I couldn’t sleep, so I stayed up and archived all the posts, thinking nobody would post their ID pictures and medical records and home address and phone number online if they weren’t desperate and that this is the last chance they might get help. We started calling them one by one, and we called some people sooner and some later and by the time we called some of them, it was a week or 10 days later, and [when I said] “I saw your post,” it was like, “No, no, no, he already passed away.” Because this person is still in quarantine and they don’t usually get the time to talk, and there’s this stranger calling, it would often be extremely emotional and there would be two hours of just talking. We have so many of them and eventually, we did go to film some of them, but a ton of them we couldn’t go film because everybody’s in quarantine.

You [also] couldn’t possibly fit in all these stories in a 90-minute film, so at one point, I felt very frustrated, like how can we show just the human tragedy because if you look at the numbers on the news every day, you don’t get to feel. You just feel [the abstraction], “Oh, that’s 4000 deaths, 5000 deaths.” But when I talked to them, each one, even though their stories could be similar, you hear their unique personality and story and how that person got infected and how they discovered it and what that person meant to the person. Everybody’s story’s unique and I felt frustrated how could I show that? I wanted to show the scale of it and the repetition of it, so the idea came can we just select all the people who [had a] family [member] die and I just chose to make that a montage and then visually, China [was] really strict — you couldn’t go into somebody else’s home when they’re in quarantine, so then came the idea of showing them through closed windows and using that to represent those people.

As the footage came in generally, was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Not a completely new direction, but after some of the initial phone calls, I told one cinematographer to keep filming nonstop because I realized he was self-censoring. He would often turn off the camera when he heard something that wasn’t good, so I made a rule that you can’t turn off the camera even when you’re walking, when you are packing…no matter what you do. Just keep rolling and I don’t care about the mount of footage. So we would get these 40-minute clips and at the time, it was so early, January or early February, I wasn’t even planning to make a feature film. The outbreak hadn’t reached the U.S. yet and I was going to make a short film and put it out as soon as we can, but when I saw some of the footage, the unstopped footage, and saw the complexities and the levels of emotion in even one clip, I knew that I couldn’t fit all of this in a short. Still, it was a film about China, but in March when the outbreak reached the U.S., it was a shocking experience for all of us and for me especially because I had biases thinking the U.S. wouldn’t experience the outbreak that way.

When the pandemic continues on, what was it like figuring out where the end point was for you and releasing it at this time?

I hope it’s clear to people that this film was made during the pandemic, but it’s not about the virus. It’s not about COVID. It’s about the politics behind it. It’s about the problems in our society of misinformation, censorship, propaganda, lack of transparency from the leaders, all of those issues that have always been there and will continue being there. It was never my intention to track the progression of the virus or where we are, so in May of last year, I was already clear on the themes of the film and what the ending of the film [was] and I imagined how long it would take me to put all the footage together because the goal was to finish last year. The film premiered in January at Sundance and we have seen a lot of changes and lack of changes [since], but I hope that people can see the film and start to examine and raise questions about this pandemic that is not focused on the virus itself.

“In the Same Breath” premieres on HBO on August 18th at 9 pm and will be available to stream on HBO Max on August 19th.