One Child Nation
(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
Program: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
Bring the biggest box of Kleenex you can find to One Child Nation. This devastatingly powerful film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, is an absorbing, eye-opening, and emotionally draining experience. The pain brings its own rewards, however, as directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang explore the wounds left by China’s One-Child Policy, which was introduced in 1982 and overturned in 2015. The film keeps the memory of the brutal policy alive while performing a stitch to heal the nation’s pain.
The credits for One Child Nation note that every Chinese crew member involved in the production was born under the country’s One-Child Policy, and Wang uses this personal element of growing up in a nation reared on population control as the mode of her inquiry. Wang, a new mother, returns home after giving birth to her son in the USA where she’s established herself as a filmmaker. (Wang’s credits include the Hot Docs hits Hooligan Sparrow and I Am Another You.) The doc follows Wang as she returns to her small village, which bears literal and figurative scars of the One Child Policy. Propaganda is everywhere, as old slogans and signs offer stern reminders to citizens to do their civic duty. On the other hand, virtually every family and neighbour Wang talks with speaks of harsh times. The sense of guilt is palpable.
Wang looks at her own family, which actually had two children since the early restrictions of the policy permitted families in rural areas to double dip if kids were born five years apart. Wang, grateful for the younger brother with whom she shared her life, wonders what the world would be like for her baby son if he could never have a brother or sister. At the same time, the stories of Wang’s brother draw out the pervasive misogyny of the One-Child Policy. When nearly all families could only have one offspring, boys became the coveted prize while having a girl was a fate worse than uncovering three lemons on a lottery ticket. Wang reflects on how, despite being the elder sibling, her brother went to college while she worked to support the family. Her case is not unique, but, most tragically, Wang had it better than many girls because she remained with her family; moreover, she stayed alive.
Accounts in One Child Nation are simply gut-wrenching as parents, family members, and peers in Wang’s community matter of factly describe the baby girls they abandoned, left for dead, or outright killed so that they could produce a boy to carry on the family name. The elderly men with whom Wang speaks too frequently uphold their views that it’s better to have a boy than a girl, while even the women rarely betray much remorse over the daughters they lost. People talk about leaving a baby girl in the market, only to watch it die from exposure two days later, as simply something that happened, like a melon discarded in search of finer fruit.
Other compelling scenes follow the trails of human trafficking as Wang visits families who adopted children discarded by the One-Child Policy, as well as networks looking to connect people with the families who abandoned him. The film scores some revealing interviews with human traffickers who profited by turning babies into commodities and worked with the government to harvest unwanted babies and help the policy achieve its goals for population control. However, these interviews afford no easy answers. While one might hesitate to sympathize with a character who exchanged human lives like consumer goods, the doc shows that tens of thousands of children survived through such transactions. Where all those kids are now, however, is a question that haunts the film.
The sense of absence permeates One Child Nation and Wang’s film is at its most remarkable when the interviewees confront the weight of the past and the sins they’ve collectively committed. In one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a documentary, Wang visits the local midwife who delivered babies in the region for nearly three decades. When Wang asks, the woman has no idea how many babies she delivered during her tenure. However, she gives Wang another number, 50,000 to 60,000, which accounts for the number of abortions she performed, including babies brought to term and euthanized.
The woman breaks down during the interview and addresses her desire for atonement, telling Wang she fully expects to be judged in her next life. As penance, she tells Wang that she sought to correct the sins of China’s One-Child Policy by devoting her life to curing infertility and helping families conceive. She points to two pennants on the wall and tells Wang that they’re gifts from parents who had a baby thanks to her aid. She then invites Wang to tour her home and they enter a room. She turns on the lights to reveal four walls plastered with pennants from floor to ceiling. She clicks the lights in another room, and then another, each wallpapered with these signs denoting a baby given life. By marking each life she helped bring into the world, the woman humbly acknowledges the countless others she took from it. The scene is overwhelmingly powerful as One Child Nation situates one woman’s quest to correct the past within the collective tragedy.
At times, One Child Nation invites comparison to a Holocaust documentary with the language and collective mindset Wang captures. Her interviewees speak as if on script, like masses brainwashed by propaganda. They all characterize the policy as “strict,” but maintain that there was nothing that could be done. The accounts convey evil as something normalized through policy and bureaucracy. Very few interviewees acknowledge the element of choice in allowing a child to live or die, or to be given away to human traffickers. The testimony echoes tales of Germans who turned blind eyes to the actions of the Nazis or the party members who contributed to the deaths of Jews simply by administering policy and carrying out their everyday jobs.
One Child Nation captures a nation’s shared culpability in the loss of a generation. It’s a brutally frank and emotionally raw film that shows the art of documentary at its finest. One Child Nation is one of the must-see films of the festival and, undoubtedly, the year.
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Update: One Child Nation opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on August 9.