'One Child Nation': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A startling account of collective trauma.

Documentary makers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang peel back the propaganda legitimizing China's now dissolved population-control policy to expose a history of human rights violations.

Many of us have only superficial knowledge of China's one child policy, in force for 35 years from 1979 through 2015. The awareness of outsiders generally centers on the favored status of the male heir for most Chinese families, yielding a generation of "little emperors" and a wave of unwanted baby girls given up for adoption, many of them landing in America. Filmmaker Nanfu Wang admits she knew only marginally more. She grew up under the policy, saying it was so ingrained into the fabric of everyday life that she gave it little thought until she became pregnant with her first child two years ago, after emigrating to the U.S.

That awakening prompted Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) to return to China to explore the direct effects of the "population war" on her family, widening her survey to include acquaintances from her rural village, midwives, family planning officials, journalists and artists, people on both sides of the government's iron-fisted enforcement measures.

The resulting film, One Child Nation — co-directed with Jialing Zhang, another female filmmaker born in China in the 1980s — is a shattering investigation of the policy's sinister ripple-effect consequences and its countless tragic victims. Densely informative yet always grounded in deep personal investment and clear-eyed compassion, this is a powerful indictment of a traumatic social experiment, made all the more startling by the success of the propaganda machine in making people continue to believe it was necessary.

Plastered across billboards, murals and commercial art, or woven thematically into school textbooks, songs for children's choirs, operas and other folk-culture performances, the government propaganda hard-selling the idea of the happy single-child family now seems quaintly kitschy. But behind those benignly idealized depictions is a brutal reality of abandoned children, enforced sterilization and abortions sometimes as late as the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy, fetuses discarded like trash, human trafficking, state-sanctioned abductions, neighbors functioning as spies to report unregistered children and orphanages fabricating whitewashed backstories to unsuspecting adoptive parents.

The core of the film is Wang's moving interviews with her own family. Her given name, Nanfu, combines the Mandarin words for "man" and "pillar," illustrating her parents' wish for a son who would grow up to be a pillar of the family. Village officials ordered her mother's sterilization after Nanfu's birth, but her grandfather resisted and managed to prevent it. Given that control was somewhat less rigid in their remote rural area, the family was able to obtain local government approval to have a second child with the stipulation of a five-year gap. Nanfu's younger brother was chosen to continue schooling, while she was put to work at 16.

Stories of other family members are more distressing. An uncle abandoned his infant daughter at a local market so he and his wife could try again for a son; the child didn't survive. An aunt gave away her daughter to a human trafficker, figuring that it was preferable to the girl's death. Still, no one in the family is willing to criticize the one child policy, maintaining that it was vital for the nation's survival to avert the overpopulation crisis and save crucial resources. "There would be cannibalism in China today without it," says Wang's mother.

The astonishing degree of indoctrination is a constant throughout, part of an ideology built around individual submission to the collective good, and loyalty to the infallible party. However, some of the most emotional insights come from the midwife of Wang's village, who estimates she performed 50,000 to 60,000 abortions and forced sterilizations during the period, averaging 20 per day. Despite acting under strict state orders in a system where midwives and family planning officials were rewarded or punished according to local birthrate results, she now sees herself during those years as an executioner, atoning by working successfully to help couples with fertility problems conceive.

Accounts of trash collectors and delivery workers paid to look out for abandoned babies feed directly into the narrative of children — mostly girls — sold by traffickers to orphanages and then channeled into the international adoption network for profit. Journalist Jiaoming Pang, who now lives in exile in Hong Kong, exposed the corrupt system in the book The Orphans of Shao, describing how children were forcibly confiscated from farmers in the poorest provinces unable to pay fines, with their adoptive parents in the U.S. or Europe led to believe they were orphans.

An American couple, Brian Stuy and Long Lan Stuy, who adopted three Chinese daughters, speak about their work through Research China, an organization they founded to help parents trace their adopted children's history. The scope of the operation, using DNA samples and extensive database searches, is enormous and the results meager, at times resulting in teenagers raised in America who decline to learn more about their background. Perhaps the most saddening cases are those of twins separated at birth, one child remaining with its biological parents while the other was given up for adoption. Again, the heartfelt personal connection heightens the material's impact as Wang wonders about her aunt's daughter, the cousin she never knew.

The film is a valuable record and a sober but frightening illustration of the dark side of this government-controlled experiment. Wang also edited, in a fluidly assembled, tight 85-minute cut with subtle scoring by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero that never intrudes. The bitter irony, after absorbing so much evidence of lives scarred or destroyed with no official accountability, is the shift since the policy was discontinued to a two child society in an effort to address the shortage of young people to look after China's aging population. All traces of one child propaganda have been erased, replaced by images of happy families with two beaming kids apiece.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Next Generation, ITVS, WDR/Arte, Motto Pictures, Pumpernickel Films
Directors: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
Producers: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang, Christoph Jorg, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn
Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen, Ken Pelletier
Directors of photography: Nanfu Wang, Yuanchen Liu
Music: Nathan Halpern, Chris Ruggiero
Editor: Nanfu Wang
Sales: Submarine Entertainment, Dogwoof

85 minutes