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Film Review: ‘One Child Nation’

Co-directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang delve into the consequences of China's population control strategy in this simultaneously intimate and wide-reaching doc, which earned Sundance’s top prize.

Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
Nanfu Wang, Shuqin Jiang, Brian Stuy

1 hour 29 minutes

In 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, attempting to curb the country’s looming population crisis, initiated a mandatory one-child policy. At the time, it all sounded so simple, so logical, reinforced by a propaganda campaign so convincing that Chinese citizens greeted the government’s expansion into family planning without protest. The messaging was so successful that even foreigners seemed to accept the rule as an effective solution, ripe to be corrected in this brave, brain-rewiring exposé, which earned Sundance’s top doc prize.

One Child Nation” co-directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang were born in China under the country’s since-rescinded One-Child Policy (now, China advocates that “One is too few; two is just right”). Although countless news reports, and no shortage of documentaries, have examined the impact of this hardline population-control strategy over its 35-year span, none has demonstrated quite so compellingly the horrific consequences, revealing nothing short of a human rights atrocity — one whose victims were too young to register on the international conscience.

Wang stepped straight into controversy when shooting her 2016 documentary “Hooligan Sparrow,” for which she was hassled and questioned by Chinese authorities, so it’s no surprise that she enlisted friend and fellow filmmaker Zhang to co-direct her considerably more ambitious third feature. From the film’s opening images, of an aborted fetus suspended in formaldehyde, to the chilling scene of a room blanketed in newspaper postings for more than 5,000 “lost” infants, the film challenges widespread assumptions about the One-Child Policy.

Underlying this powerful — if inevitably somewhat unfocused — documentary is a simple enough question: How much do we, as concerned and ostensibly engaged members of the modern world, actually know about the One-Child Policy? Lurking beyond that is a second, infinitely more damning follow-up: Why didn’t anyone question, much less challenge, laws that called for the systemic sterilization of mothers, full-term abortion of unsanctioned pregnancies, and seizure and forced adoption of children born in violation of the rule?

If this seems like an extreme interpretation of or reaction to “One Child Nation,” it only goes to show how little thought we have collectively put into what the policy entailed — an oversight this provocative and personal documentary aims to rectify, or at least reframe, by using Wang’s family back in China as a window into how millions more were impacted.

The first clue that there was more to the rule than outsiders understood is the introduction of Wang’s younger brother — the son her parents wanted when she was born, as evidenced by the name they gave her: Nanfu means “man-pillar,” indicating that they were counting on a son to support the family. How, if families were only allowed one child, does she have a brother? Well, as Wang (now a mother, returning to China with her first child) explains, in less populous rural communities couples were permitted to bear a second child five years after the first. And so, right on schedule, her brother Zhihao was born.

But what if her mother had gotten pregnant a year or two earlier? Or what if the second child had been a girl? A visit to the local midwife, Huaru Yuan, reveals what so often happened: The 84-year-old estimates that she performed between 50,000 and 60,000 sterilizations and abortions. (Later we learn how would-be mothers were abducted and forcibly restrained for these procedures.) These days, as if to atone for her “sins” — as she sees these actions executed on orders from above — Yuan exclusively treats patients with infertility.

Contrast Yuan’s remorseful attitude with the cold practicality of Shuqin Jiang, a family-planning official turned national celebrity who had a leadership role in mass sterilizations and abortions. Though she recalls having reservations about her work, Jiang says, “I had to put the national interest above my personal feelings” — a typically Chinese attitude, consistent with communist ideology, in which the greater good trumps individual concerns. “Looking back, the policy was absolutely correct. … We were fighting a population war.”

As in any war, there were countless casualties. Although unborn and abandoned babies were largely banished from sight, the film’s next interviewee — artist Peng Wang — has dedicated himself to reminding the public of these deaths. In a shocking moment, Peng Wang explains how aborted fetuses became the subject of his work more than two decades ago after photographing a dumping site, where he noticed a dead baby discarded amid the garbage under a bridge.

Such focus shifts can be disorienting at times as “One Child Nation” — undoubtedly one of the year’s most important documentaries — grapples with a topic too enormous to be authoritatively covered by a single feature-length work, juggling intimate stories about the policy with a kind of shotgun-blast generality. Had the co-directors gone with a more thorough miniseries treatment — at a moment when audiences have the patience to engage with long-form documentary, à la “Leaving Neverland” and “Wild Wild Country” — Peng Wang might well have warranted an episode of his own, which could also be said of so many of the film’s other high-impact digressions.

But “One Child Nation” can’t linger long, as it has much ground to cover, including a wrenching family story that illustrates in personal terms how parents in the paternalistic Chinese society hoped for male offspring, and how this led to the abandonment of infant girls under the One-Child Policy: Interviewing her family, Nanfu Wang discovers that her uncle abandoned a baby girl shortly after her birth.

The more people the filmmakers interview, the more the responses begin to sound the same — variations on “The One-Child Policy was so strict” and “We had no choice” — as an entire generation of citizens remain paralyzed to explain their compliance. Wondering about the fate of her lost cousin leads Wang on an elaborate and eye-opening investigation of the traffickers who collected unwanted babies and sold them to local orphanages, as well as U.S.-based Research China activists Brian Stuy and Long Lan Stuy, who adopted three Chinese children and have since dedicated themselves to helping Chinese orphans identify and reconnect with their parents.

The film’s final stretch loses steam somewhat as it delves into the subject of twins born under the One-Child Policy, and how the authorities were ill-equipped to deal with such births, often forcing parents to surrender the second child. This phenomenon has been explored at great length by other journalists, some of whom have had the good fortune to observe the kind of cathartic reunion that might have given this segment of the film the emotional kick it seeks. Simultaneously intimate and far-reaching, the film does far more than scratch the surface, forcing audiences to confront a policy that, amid concerns over population growth in other corners of the globe, begs to be better understood before another country seeks to repeat it.

Film Review: 'One Child Nation'

Reviewed at True/False Film Festival, March 1, 2019. (Also in Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Next Generation production, in co-production with ITVS, WDR/ARTE, Motto Pictures, Pumpernickel Films, in association with Chicago Media Project, Chicken & Egg Pictures. (Int’l sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Producers: Christoph Jörg, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn. Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen, Ken Pelletier.

Crew: Directors: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang. Camera (color, HD/DV/VHS): Nanfu Wang, Yuanchen Liu. Editor: Nanfu Wang. Music: Nathan Halpern, Chris Ruggiero.

With: Nanfu Wang, Shuqin Jiang, Brian StuyZaodi Wang, Zhimei Wang, Huaru Yuan, Peng Wang, Guijiao Wang, Tunde Wang, Yueneng Duan, Long Lan Stuy, Jiaoming Pang, Shuangjie Zeng. (English, Mandarin dialogue)

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