The superb new documentary "One Child Nation" comes from filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who tells a shadowy, complex story of her family and of China's notorious population control methods implemented in 1979 and perpetuated for 35 years.
Government propaganda slogans, stenciled on countless buildings and walls all across China, hammered home the policy. One we see in the movie states: "Better to shed a river of blood than to birth more than one child." Since revising the policy — two children is the sanctioned norm now, not one — China has necessarily adjusted its internal marketing campaign. One song lyric heard in a pageant sequence in "One Child Nation" puts it this way: "Two children are great/like migratory geese, they will return home every year!"
Wang's idiosyncratic chronicle of a massively deceptive, horrifically cruel program hits very close to home for her. She and her brother grew up in Wang Village in China's Jiangxi Province. Their family was an exception to the general rule, as rural families were allowed two children, spaced five years apart.
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After the birth of her own son, U.S.-based Wang returned to China in 2016 with her co-director, Jialing Zhang, who like Wang was born in China under the One-Child Policy. The risks inherent in this project were many. The directors interviewed former human traffickers, various state officials and a variety of village elders who do not like hearing questions from Wang that require revisiting the past. Wang's grandfather, we learn, fought with his village's leaders to prevent his wife, Wang's grandmother, from forced sterilization. Wang's mother, to this day, remains a believer in how the One-Child Policy rescued China from famine and ruin.
Tunde Wang, ex-village chief, speaks casually, at first, of punishing those who didn't comply with the one-child law by having to "demolish their homes or take their possessions." Huaru Yuan, an important figure in Wang's ancestral village and the woman who delivered co-director Wang herself, estimates that she performed 50,000 abortions and sterilizations in her 25-year career as a midwife. "My hands trembled doing it," she says at one point, "but I had no choice."
There is so much more to this film. Various camera subjects recall the sight of abandoned, "illegal" babies left in baskets on the street or in a shop. Ex-traffickers, exiled investigative journalists, American parents of adopted Chinese babies, now grown, some of whom are eager to learn some verifiable facts about their birth parents: In a very full and riveting 85 minutes, "One Child Nation" assembles a huge story together from many small, crucial pieces.
Wang started out her life a true believer in the state, and her homeland's propaganda. Now, as she concludes, she is living a paradoxical life in America, where a woman's control over her own body remains eternally up for political grabs. Like Josh Oppenheimer's arresting documentaries "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence," which coaxed singular confessions on camera from state-sanctioned purveyors of Indonesian genocide, Wang doggedly questions village officials about what they did on orders from above. Some are plainly devastated; others remain fixed in their notion that the old policy saved a great country from starvation.
There is more than kind of starvation, however. A nation can subject its people to moral and spiritual starvation through its laws. Those laws can change; meantime, millions of ordinary people are left dealing with the ghosts.