The very best documentary filmmakers are those able to blend personal stories with universal themes. Drawn in by intimacy, we find ourselves open to consider the impact of wider social issues.
This delicate balancing act is achieved in director Nanfu Wang’s superb documentary One Child Nation. This is a film that examines the extreme population control policy implemented in China in the early 1980s that made it illegal for couples to have more than one child.
What grips us and engages us, however, is Wang’s experience of the policy having grown up in China, moved to the US and given birth to her first child. She shares her family’s personal - and heartbreaking - stories and explores how this social experiment devastated lives.
It is startling to realise that, while China’s one child policy ended in 2015, the process of dealing with the trauma of its heartless and inhumane enforcement is only just beginning. Via emotional to camera interviews, we see the conflict between the rights of the individual and what the Chinese people have been taught to accept is right for their country.
“China’s One Child Policy was in place for over thirty-five years and it touched the lives of
millions of people,” Wang explains. “Yet somehow, the specific details of how the policy was implemented are not widely known. This is true not just abroad, but in China as well.
“I grew up in China and thought I knew everything there was to know about the policy. But when I started to ask questions about it, every new detail was a revelation. We hope this film will fill in the gaps in the official history of the One Child Policy - hopefully it will show what the policy really meant for the people who lived it.”
However, it wasn’t until Wang became pregnant that the idea arose of exploring the policy in a documentary. “I moved away from China several years ago and didn’t have to worry about getting government approval to have a child,” Wang recalls. “Having my first child made me think about what it would have been like for the state to control such an essential aspect of my humanity, and I wanted to explore my questions about that in the film.”
As soon as Wang’s conversations with her interview subjects began, she realised that the policy was intensely traumatic for everyone. “Eventually we realised that the story needed
to include the voices of people who carried out the policy - we needed to find out what
motivated them, how they felt in retrospect about what they did,” Wang explains. “I think we expected the film to be a story of victims and perpetrators, but when we started speaking with family planning officials, it just became clear how complex and fraught the story of the policy really is.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems incredible that people could still support the measure. One Child Nation documents one disturbing human rights violation after another. Wang is unafraid to show the brutal reality of this policy - from abandoned newborns (mainly girls), to forced sterilizations, from abortions to government abductions. This is the stuff of nightmares.
The documentary also reveals just how much power a lifetime of country-wide indoctrination has over its citizens. As a result of this propaganda, many people (mistakenly) believe that the policy, while difficult, prevented a far bigger catastrophe.
“Growing up, I think a lot of the time I wasn’t aware they were propaganda, or my thoughts were mostly learned through the propaganda until I left China,” Wang says. “I often said that I felt I lived in the Truman Show. I didn’t really see anything - the concepts of power, control, and censorship - all of those are very abstract.”
Interestingly, during One Child Nation’s early days, propaganda wasn’t a prominent part of the documentary. “It was at some point when we interviewed a character, who is not in the film, who collected a lot of One Child Policy propaganda stuff, that I realised the scope of how much the state promoted the policy,” Wang remembers.
“Only after seeing those things did all the memories that were either hidden or buried, deep
memories from childhood, suddenly became fresh,” she explains. “I suddenly remembered the things that I saw growing up and then I did more research and realised, oh my god, there was so much TV programming, theatrical performances, songs that promoted the policy. It was just something that we watched. But now, I realised it was so absurd, so dystopian - how would anyone see it and not realize that it’s propaganda?! It is mind-blowing.”
“Back then I was part of it, and still now most of my friends and family are part of it,” the director adds. “They watch those videos and feel patriotic. Because they have never had the exposure to anything otherwise, they never had any awakening to see it differently. When I realized that, I knew that the film should be just as much about the propaganda as it is about the One Child Policy.”
Wang’s personal relationship to her country’s policy on birth control lies at the heart of One Child Nation. However, the director fought for a long time not to be in the film. “I felt there are so many characters already, it is almost a historical record or oral history. I edited a few versions without myself as a character,” she explains.
Then, while pitching her documentary, Wang began to get the same feedback. Why wasn’t she part of her film? Why wasn’t her story being heard? During a meeting with editing consultant, Jonathan Oppenheim, Wang and her friend and collaborator, Jialing Zhang, screened all of One Child Nation’s stories without Wang and they then showed him a short video the director and her husband made for a TED conference. The short film was about getting pregnant and giving birth, and how the birth of their son changed the way they saw the world.
“Jonathan felt the stories I showed him were all powerful, but they were not emotionally connected,” says Wang. “He pointed out that the short video I made about my son was very emotional and powerful. So that made us think more and eventually we realised that I am the entryway for the audience to be able to connect to the characters, and the way that they would have that connection is through me.”
It is chilling to watch a country prioritise its national agenda over human life. Many scenes in Wang’s film make for a tough watch. Meanwhile, it is just as chilling to see how easily the history documented in One Child Nation could be forgotten and, once forgotten, repeated.
“The One Child Policy is just one example of how policy is implemented in China, and this applies to all the other decisions or historical events,” Wang explains. “For example, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests - in China both of those things are portrayed as victories of the Communist Party.
“The true version of events completely disappeared because the people who lived it either left China, or they died, or they were imprisoned, and the ordinary people only have the official version, what’s printed in the textbooks. People of my generation, or my son’s
generation, or future generations - if they don’t have the exposure to what the Tiananmen
Square protest really was, they will grow up and never know what really happened there, or
even more likely, they’ll never hear about it at all.”
Thank goodness then for One Child Nation - a devastating, powerful and thought provoking account of what really happened during China’s one child policy..