Like the terror attacks on Sept.11, 2001, COVID-19 is a topic that will inevitably become the subject matter of hundreds, if not thousands, of documentaries over the next several decades.
Even now, just 18 months after the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. began and during a time when the delta variant is making COVID cases surge across the country, there are a handful of pandemic-focused docus available for viewing. Each film explores the virus’ origins as well as the long-term ramifications on the world, emotionally, societally and politically.
But the question for some of the filmmakers and distributors is this: How much appetite is there for these documentaries at a time when the delta variant is surging?
HBO Documentary Films’ “In the Same Breath,” debuting Aug. 18 on HBO and HBO Max, is the latest to test that appetite. Directed by Nanfu Wang, a Chinese émigré who was Emmy-nominated last year for “One Child Nation,” it follows MTV Studios’ “76 Days,” which premiered at Toronto Intl. Film Festival last September before a virtual theatrical debut and release on Paramount Plus, plus Alex Gibney’s “Totally Under Control” about Donald Trump and his administration’s response to COVID-19, which Neon and Hulu released in October 2020.
Already the winner of an audience award at SXSW, “In the Same Breath” delivers a critical, unflinching look at the early days of the pandemic as it took root in Wuhan and then New York City. The documentary evolved as the pandemic surged around the world.
Wang grew up in Jiangxi Province, a rural farming village 200 miles from Wuhan, before moving to the U.S. nine years ago. In January 2020, working remotely from her home in New Jersey, she assembled a team of field producers, camera operators and subjects on the ground of a heavily censored China to investigate what was going on in hospitals within Wuhan. In doing so, the director was able to reveal the Chinese dictatorship’s attempts to conceal early knowledge of the virus’ deadly potential.
“I was never my intention to make a film about the virus or tracking the pandemic,” Wang says.
Instead the director’s initial vision for the doc, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021, was to expose the wrongdoings of the Chinese government’s initial response to the coronavirus.
“I knew it was a political film,” Wang explains. “The virus exposed the issues that already existed (within the Chinese government) and those issues are compounded by COVID.”
But by April 2020, “In the Same Breath” shifted to become a doc about how not only China, but also the United States used the pandemic as a political propaganda tool.
“What I witnessed living in the U.S. in March and April 2020 was that the (U.S.) government didn’t allow the free flow of information and didn’t allow for transparency,” says Wang. “That was really perplexing to me because I had this inaccurate, preconceived notion that that didn’t happen in this country, which calls itself a democracy.”
Chinese American director Hao Wu, who worked alongside two China-based journalists on “76 Days,” also began working on his COVID documentary during early days of the pandemic. He virtually directed cameramen embedded in hospitals throughout Wuhan while filming the documentary, which has already received an Emmy nomination. MTV’s head of documentary films Sheila Nevins acquired the film last summer, just before the doc premiered at Toronto. “76 Days” captures healthcare workers and patients’ stories during the city’s 76-day lockdown.
Nevins praises the “exquisitely detailed construction” and the fact that it included more hope than heartbreak.
“It wasn’t refrigerated trucks,” Nevins explains. “I found myself crying and I thought, ‘We’re going to get out of this virus because they seemed to have control over it and that, I thought, was slightly encouraging and comforting. If you were obedient, you could beat this virus. I had no idea at that time when I bought it that they were going to divide America into two pieces.”
Unlike last summer when vaccines were on the horizon and offered some a way out of the mess, the recent introduction of the delta variant will have consequences for the reception these documentaries receive from viewers, Nevins believes.
“Right now there’s an appetite to survive COVID,” says Nevins. “We’re living it. Do we want to watch what we’re living?”
Yes, “Frontline” executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath maintains.
She should know. Since March 2020 her PBS signature longform investigative-journalism series has released 14 coronavirus related documentaries including “Inside Italy’s COVID War,” “The Virus: What Went Wrong,” and “The Healthcare Divide.”
“The investigative work that we did during the COVID era and that we continue to do was and is essential investigative reporting to hold people in power to account for not acting quickly enough for decisions that were made,” says Aronson-Rath. “Decisions that disproportionately hit BIPOC communities in our own country and abroad, like access to vaccines. One of the crucial decisions that (“Frontline”) made was to focus on the people who are hit the hardest.”
And it turns out audiences were not afraid to watch power people make disheartening decisions. According to Aronson-Rath, “Frontline” COVID-related docs have all found sizable digital audiences.
Coming up in October, National Geographic’s “The First Wave” will open the 29th edition of the Hamptons Intl. Film Festival. Neon is set to release the film, directed by Matthew Heineman and centering on frontline workers at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens during initial months of the pandemic, in theaters later this year before a broadcast premiere on Nat Geo.
But like Nevins, Carolyn Bernstein, National Geographic’s executive VP of global scripted content & documentary films, wonders about audience’s cravings for COVID-19 documentaries.
“When we commissioned this film we never thought that the pandemic would last as long as it has,” says Bernstein. “So our thinking at the time was that watching this movie would be a cathartic experience for the audience because the pandemic would be very much in the rearview mirror. Now it will absolutely be a different viewing experience because the pandemic is very much among us.”
Her hope is that the doc will serve as an “tremendously effective cautionary tale” especially for those people who aren’t vaccinated or are vaccine hesitant.
“Watching this movie will make people who haven’t been directly touched by COVID deeply understand what the pandemic can do to individual people and how it works in a hospital setting,” Bernstein says. “It should make (anti-COVID vaxxers) reconsider their points of view.”