Politics, accountability and misinformation: New documentary examines COVID-19 response in China and U.S.
TORONTO -- The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a reckoning with many issues, such as elder care standards, attitudes about vaccines, and national and global inequalities in health resources.
But in her documentary “In the Same Breath,” filmmaker Nanfu Wang turns a focus to the issue of government misinformation in the early days of the pandemic, and connects the approaches taken by China and the United States.
Known for her past documentaries “Hooligan Sparrow” and “One Child Nation,” Wang was visiting family in China not far from Wuhan when news of the initial outbreak emerged last January, and soon afterward she began looking into how dangerous the situation was for her loved ones.
But what became evident to her was the degree to which the Chinese government appeared to be downplaying the impact of the pandemic.
“The more research I did the more I realized the huge discrepancy between what the government was telling people and the world and what was actually happening,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday. “When I realized that, I was motivated to tell the story and to let more people know what was happening there.”
Wang, who was born in China but has lived in the U.S. for the past nine years, initially planned to focus her film entirely on the handling of the pandemic in China, but her thinking changed as she saw U.S. officials making their own attempts to distort the reality of the situation.
“When the outbreak reached the U.S. and I saw the same thing was happening here then that was what compelled me to change the film to make the film about both China and the U.S. mishandling of the outbreak,” she said.
With her ability to travel limited, Wang was forced to make the film remotely, and relied on a team of about a dozen cinematographers in the U.S. and in China to gather footage. She also had to tread the sensitive ground of getting people to participate in a climate where people in the medical and science fields have faced backlash in both countries, and also consider any risk to herself.
“I think this is a documentary filmmaker's responsibility to hold the power accountable, and when there is no other mechanism that can do that that's the power of storytelling,” she said. “When we start to acknowledge the consequences and examine the behaviour that led to those consequences is when we can actually make changes.”
The film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is currently streaming at the Hot Docs Festival. Wang said she hopes the film will show audiences step-by-step how the role of misinformation impacted the pandemic, and how to prevent it from repeating itself.
“I'm hoping that the film would show people that this is not about the COVID, not about the pandemic itself, it’s really political,” she said. “It’s looking at our society and political system and almost right now is a warning to see if we don't hold the power accountable, what our future will be.”
Hot Docs presenting partner CRAVE and CTV News are both owned by Bell Media.