“I realized I had fully bought into the idea that America was too advanced to suffer an outbreak like China’s. But every time I turned on the news, I heard echoes of China’s outbreak all across America.”
Genre: Must-watch Current Events Documentaries
Release Date: 2021
Where I Watched: HBO
Gist: A Chinese-born American filmmaker with family in Wuhan looks at the pandemic, and the similar reactions from the Chinese and American governments.
Talky talk: There are so many documentaries that have come out this year. But this one should be at the top of your holiday break binge list. Why? Because even though it’s extremely depressing, heartbreaking, and will remind you that we are indeed living in an out-of-control dumpster fire, Breath is a time capsule of the COVID-19 pandemic from start to…well, now. (Anyone else feeling like this will go on forever?) It’s the kind of film all anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and anti-masker “people” should watch, to get a good hard look at exactly what’s been going on while they’ve been popping off.
Director Nanfu Wang tends to keep her focus on China, and their government’s denial/coverup of the outbreak in the COVID pandemic’s early stages. Halfway through the doc, she switches focus from China to the United States, focusing on our government’s response and the subsequent pushback on preventative measures. Wang takes an even-handed approach here, showing that for many who have general concerns? She shows that concerns were absolutely understandable when our government – including the CDC and Dr. Fauci – first discussed the outbreak, and the back-and-forth about masks and lockdowns. Me? I’m paranoid AF, so I bought a mask (thanks, Amazon) in January, 2020 just in case. (I am immunosuppressed, so I’d figured I’d always have some sort of use for it, even if this outbreak thing was just a flash in the pan. That was my one smart move over this pandemic. Hope y’all enjoyed it.
Wang goes back and forth between the USA and China’s worst days of lockdown in 2020, interviewing health care workers, families who lost loved ones, and morticians. Yeah, she goes deep. She also does a great job taking snippets of Chinese news shows reading stock governmental scripts meant to soothe (bamboozle?) the public. The way Wang does a Brady Bunch like split screen to show so many news anchors repeating the exact same words from the government is chilling. Because they’re telling everybody to not be worried and that the doctors were spreading false information. And in reality, people were dying.
Because Breath shows us people being taken away from their homes, only to find there was no space in hospital. Or that they were turned away from every hospital they went to, and not told why. I understand not everybody is as much of a softie as I am, but if you’re unmoved by the stacks of bodies waiting to be cremated, the families telling Wang the family member she’s checking on has passed, or how family members talk about never seeing their loved ones again after those loved ones were taken away? You are a mean one, Mr. Grinch.
The director also interviewed American healthcare workers, showing how they went about their daily lives, often breaking down in tears over and over again day after day. And the separation from their families as they continue to do their jobs. These workers even while filming would tear up, and or get angry and frustrated. “I didn’t know this was in me, how upset I’m getting right now.” Then she cuts to shots of Chinese health care workers, trying their best to hold in tears “for their country”, and failing. That sound you hear is my heart breaking.
The death of Wang’s father when she was 11 years old – most likely due to a lack of adequate care in Chinese hospital for his heart issues – is what pushed her to become a documentary filmmaker. And boy howdy though this film is riveting, how I wish she had a different, uplifting, positive message to share. Because even though the way so many pulled together in the very worst of times, Breath shows that we as a species have a very long way to go before we all come together to protect our lives. Of course, the pandemic is just one part of a huge lack of empathy/care we have for ourselves and the environment. But I’ll leave it at this. For now.
Come for: A look at a documentary that will surely make many award season short lists.
Stay for: An important piece of current events that will no doubt become an important part of our collective history.