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I tried watching a documentary on COVID-19. It made me sick to my stomach

‘In the Same Breath’ tried to say something about COVID-19. But I couldn’t make it past 10 minutes

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A still from In The Same Breath by Nanfu Wang, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

A still from In The Same Breath by Nanfu Wang, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Provided by Sundance Institute

Heading into the Sundance Film Festival, it seemed the documentary “In the Same Breath” — which centers around the coronavirus pandemic — would hit home more than anything else. 

The documentary — which comes from filmmaker Nanfu Wang (“One Child Nation”) — reports on the origin and spread of COVID-19 from Wuhan, China, to the United States through a personal and geopolitical scale, showing us how the virus moved so quickly across the world.

But I could only stomach 10 minutes of the film.

Look, I’ve been writing about the novel coronavirus and the pandemic for more than one year. I’ve covered the deaths, the damage and the darkness of the pandemic. But reliving moments of it were hard to handle. Seeing the events play out on the screen offered a sense of dread and foreboding — feelings we all get by watching the news and keeping up to date with the virus every day.

I sat down to watch this film with all the hope in the world that it would give us some sort of insight into the coronavirus. Instead, it made me sad, upset and worried about where the pandemic is going.

It got too real, too quick

The documentary started strong for me. Wang starts her documentary sharing what it was like to be in China for New Year’s Eve on Dec. 30, 2019. The parties, the bright lights, the spectacle of a promising year ahead. But then everything took a dark turn when she showed social media videos of people waiting in line for help at the hospital. She then transitions to video footage from inside a hospital, where you see a father caring for his son, who has a severe condition of COVID-19.

It was at that moment that I had to skip forward in the project. I couldn’t watch the tragic moment unfold. I’ve seen the tragedies in the news. My grandmother got COVID-19. Hearing her weak voice on the phone was enough for me to take it seriously. One of my best friends is a doctor. He tells me about the horrors of the virus. I cover it every day. I’ve been tested before. The anxiety and dread of pandemic are already too much. I couldn’t force myself to relive it.

So I skipped ahead, trying to avoid the dark beginning. Little did I know that it wouldn’t help much.

The United States flashbacks were hard to watch

I skipped ahead in the documentary to when the virus hit the United States. The documentary includes a scene where Dr. Anthony Fauci advises the American people to not wear masks. Then, it fast forwards to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo telling New Yorkers that they have to work from home. Cue the shots of New York City empty and barren — an apocalyptic wasteland.

I remember those days vividly. One of my good friends lives in New York, and he shared updates with us every day. We watched Twitch streamers ride their bikes through New York. I remember driving down I-15 in Utah, seeing empty streets that would normally be packed.

It was not a memory I wanted to relive right now — not today. These weren’t scenes I wanted to see again. It instantly brought me back to the early days of the pandemic — days where the fear of the unknown persisted highly. We know more now. We know how to keep ourselves safe. Those early days were scary, dark and unnerving. Seeing them on the screen only brought back those feelings of dread.

It’s too soon

To put it simply, it’s too early for a documentary like this. I understand the importance of exploring the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. I know we need to tell people’s stories about what happened and why we need to share details about the tragedy. I’m all for it. I get it. Like I said, I write about it every day.

But it was too early for me to relive the moments of the pandemic. We’re not even through the pandemic, and we still have troubling months ahead. Variants are popping up every day. Cases continue to come in the thousands in every single state. Yes, we have vaccines on the way and new treatments. But people are dying. Children are staying home from school. People are losing their jobs. The pandemic isn’t over. We can’t pretend like it is.

Eventually, there will be plenty of documentaries made on the pandemic and the toll it had on us as a people. I will watch them. But I will only watch them when it’s over — when the pandemic is behind us and I don’t have to relive the dread while the pandemic is still ongoing.

“In the Same Breath” surely matters, and it’s something worth speaking about. But for now, I am going to keep my mask on, stay socially distant from others and avoid watching anything about the virus that has reshaped our world.