On Jan. 1, 2020, Wuhan, China, welcomed a new year and a new decade. That same day, Chinese state media announced that eight individuals were arrested in conjunction with spreading rumors about a new form of pneumonia. Twenty-two days later, Wuhan locked down with hopes of containing the novel coronavirus.
So opens In the Same Breath, the latest documentary from Nanfu Wang. Using ground zero footage from Wuhan and news broadcasts, Wang paints two pictures: The fight against the virus on the frontlines and the simultaneous suppression of information via state media. Chillingly, Wang and editor Michael Shade cut together various broadcasts, each anchor delivering the same information in the same robotic intonation. Wang does not live in China anymore. She left its totalitarian grip years ago for the country that prides itself on free speech. But, as Wang depicts in the second half of Breath, the coronavirus narrative supplied by the U.S. government wasn’t much better than China’s, and major media channels were just as complicit. Add in manipulation via social media, and Wang finds something wholly new to fear. As Wang says, she’s lived under one authoritarian regime in her life and has no interest in living under another. The coronavirus pandemic will end, but it may give birth to something different. Something worse.
By their nature, movies are past events projected in the present tense. Much of Breath is familiar to anyone who’s had an eye on the news these past 18 months. You could dismiss it as old hat, but here we are: masking up again and fighting over vaccination passports. History repeats itself, sure, but must the interval come so close together?
You could ask the same of another ongoing crisis, this one the subject of Lucy Walker’s Bring Your Own Brigade.
In 2018, Walker—a European residing in California—decided to make a movie about why Californians live in areas beleaguered by wildfires. So, she turned her lens to the Thompson Fire, the largest in state history up to that point. But while digging through Thompson’s ashes, the Camp Fire north of Paradise broke out and moved swiftly over the hills and through the city. Eighty-five people died in the fire, with 18,000 structures destroyed.
Meanwhile, 500 miles south, the Woolsey Fire north of Malibu also claimed lives (3) and structures (1,600). And though the regions were similar, the population of Paradise and Malibu couldn’t be more disparate.
Why one population walked away with so little while the other saved so much is the crux of BYOB. It’s a powerful piece of work, if somewhat unwieldy at times—which Walker uses to her advantage: There is no one answer to a crisis, no one reaction to devastation.
Though the heart of BYOB is the footage filmed during the Camp Fire—30 gripping minutes of harrowing images that wring you out like a sponge—the aftermath of the fire and how people live with it gives the movie its soul. Here, these two docs intersect and deal with forces hard to contain, harder still to understand. Both are mired by truths, half-truths, assumptions, anomalies, observations and beliefs. And while Wang succeeds in showing how the media and officials manipulate the messages, Walker does an equally good job showing how that happens individually. Fascinatingly, both conclude with a similar observation: To live in a world, to exist freely, we must sacrifice what we think of as personal freedoms for the safety of others. For many, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. For many more, the current option is far more toxic.
Stream In the Same Breath on HBO Max; Bring Your Own Brigade on Paramount+. A version of the above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 29, No. 2, “Can movies solve our problems?“