Rick’s Reviews: ‘One Child Nation’ looks at China’s effort to control population

Rick's Reviews

LOS ANGELES– Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Nanfu Wang knew going back to her native country of China to collect footage for the documentary she wanted to make on the country’s law that made it illegal for couples to have more than one child could end up with her being sent to prison. That didn’t stop her and she was able to get the material she needed to create the documentary “One Child Nation.”

The film will be shown as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens” at 10 p.m. March 30. It will be available after that on the network’s streaming service.

“I worked closely with my co-director, Jialing (Zhang), Every time when I or she needed to go film something, we planned tremendously,” Wang says. “We imagined the worst case scenario. We made emergency plans. If I was not in contact with her for two hours, ‘What do I do? In four hours, what do I do?’

“Sometimes she’s in the US tracking me through GPS real time, monitoring where I was. And if I showed up in a place where I wasn’t supposed to be that we haven’t talked about, then it alerted her. And she, in turn, would alert our funders. We have an entire plan made up, in emergency, what to activate.”

Precautions were a necessity because while China’s one-child policy ended in 2015, the process of dealing with the trauma of its brutal enforcement continues. The Chinese government convinced its citizens to commit an endless number of human rights violation, abandoned newborns (almost always girls), forced sterilizations, abortions and government abductions. 

The documentary examines another continuing problem – a gender imbalance in China.

“There are many men who can’t find wives. And Human Rights Watch last year published a huge report because this has become a human rights issue, as many Chinese men started kidnapping, trafficking women from bordering countries, such as Laos, Pakistan, and Cambodia, and bring the women into the country, imprison them until they produce a child,” Wang says.

“One Child Nation” has been a very personal project for Wang. Not only was she inspired by the birth of her daughter to make the film, a large part of the production looks into her own life in China. Featured is the midwife who delivered Wang and all of the babies in her village. She also estimates performing 60,000 abortions while the policy was in effect.

Wang was born in China but eventually moved to the United States to study communication at Ohio University and holds a master’s degree in documentary from the journalism department at New York University. Her first documentary tells the story of efforts by Chinese human rights activists to get justice for several young girls who had been assaulted.

Her second feature documentary, “I Am Another You,” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2017 where it won two special jury awards.

One of the most shocking parts of “One Child Nation” for Wang is the continuing effect of the law.

“There is definitely a collective trauma that the nation is experiencing, yet I think what’s worse is a lot of people weren’t even aware of this trauma. I talked to my mom, my aunt, and my uncle. All of them had once experienced a forced abortion or forced to abandon their child or had their child taken away from them,” Wang says. “I believe anyone who is sitting here who is a parent would understand. If your child is taken way or you lose a child, it’s not something that you can forget. And when I talked to them, they revealed even the mentioning of it, you can see the pain on their face. And it’s something that stayed with them their whole life.

“For the younger generation, like me, who grew up under the policy, being indoctrinated in the belief that the policy was great in my whole life, and only when I became a mom, I started realizing and started thinking.”

China’s one-child policy was introduced in 1979. The one question Wang could not get completely answered was why the law was allowed to stay in place for so many years. She discovered a variety of theories.

“The one child policy is one of the fundamental laws in China. It was written in the constitution, which means no matter how the president change, the administration change, this cannot be changed. So it took a long time,” Wang says. “Even now, there were experts in China who wrote about there were people in the government who also started seeing the negative impact of the policy.

“For example, China now is suffering from the shrinking of the workforce, which the economy which means the economy cannot be sustainable in the next decades or so. That’s why the one child policy ended”

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