BY DEAN MOSES
We all have a notion of what family means, a personal perception of those whom we hold dear. For some it may be a sibling, a parent, grandparent, maybe a cousin, for others family may mean a lover, a cherished friend, even a pet. Whatever it means to you, there is no debating that family is one of the most powerful bonds we as humans can hold. But what if someone prevented you from having a family?What if a law was passed that declared it illegal? Well, that is exactly what happened in China from 1979 to 2015.
One Child Nation, directed by Jialing Zhang and Nanfu Wang, is a documentary that made its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (TFF). This intriguing and rather inspiring feature avoids getting bogged down in political chitchat and simply follows the consequences of a state’s legislation, regardless of whether the choice to implement it was viable or not—the law in question being the One Child Policy. This controversial procedure made it unlawful to have more than one child in any family unit due to China’s overpopulation crisis; a law the director of this film’s family disobeyed. Nanfu Wang can vividly recall the stigma of growing up with a brother when all of her friends existed as only children, which she admits was difficult at the time. In her twenties, Wang emigrated from China to the U.S where—years later—she gave birth to her first baby. This life changing arrival motivated the new mother to re-examine her own childhood by creating this documentary.
Wang is our vessel into the past, through her eyes, memories, and camera lens we not only travel back to the one child policy’s inception, we are transported beyond it to the director’s hometown in present day, where she conducts interviews with members of the village who played important roles during the policy’s enforcement, including her own family. Some of these individuals are remorseful for the roles they played in implementing the government’s will, everyone from a man who ordered women to have forced abortions to the midwife who carried them out and now lives her life attempting to make amends. It is only when looking into their eyes and listening to their own words that we feel the true horror that the policy wrought, and the regret they carry with them daily—an albatross around their necks. Through these tear-jerking accounts we are taken on a ride that holds countless twists and turns, some horrendous, others which gives us hope. We are greeted by villains who turn out to be heroes, shown images that will stick with the viewer for a lifetime, and incredibly of all… it’s all true.
While being an exercise in the education of a nation’s history and the horrific aspects of human being’s dark hearts, it is likewise an investigation into one woman’s struggle to comprehend her own backstory. As an immigrant myself, I find it inspirational to watch Wang bravely travel back to China, meeting with those she had not encountered for years. The filmmakers dis-played journalistic prowess by wasting no time quizzing them on such a delicate topic. She is our director, our narrator, our detective. She uncovers a lifetime of despair and the damage it fashioned around so many lives: forced abortions, child abandonment, kidnapping, and murder—some which we as viewers will find it hard to accept. Wang may have started this journey for herself and her baby, however, she ended it for all those who strive to come to terms with their own history. One Child Nation is a must watch and an example of what it means to be a documentarian.
The Spring Creek Sun was on the red carpet as the filmmakers, Jialing Zhang and Nanfu Wang arrived. We had the opportunity to speak in depth on some of the film’s awe-inspiring aspects, and things got emotional.
Spring Creek Sun (SCS): As an immigrant myself, I thought it was very brave of you to revisit China and interview the people you grew up with and pillars of the community. Can you tell me what that process was like and how did it feel interviewing them about such a sensitive topic?
Nanfu Wang (NW): Well, at first we felt a lot of nervousness because we didn’t know how they would react to topics like that. I was actually surprised that people were pretty outspoken because we didn’t go in telling people that we were going to make a film criticizing the policy. We actually presented the film mostly by saying how great this policy is. We presented it that way without any judgement. We did not judge anybody during the interviews. We really wanted to show what the history was like for the people who lived through it.
SCS: You mention that they said the policy was great, but I also saw their expressions in the film and they look like they have some sort of hardness about them, showing that on some level they feel that the policy really was a bad thing as well. Why do you think so many people refused to refute the government and go along with the lines, instead of standing up and saying “No, this isn’t right.”
NW: I think that is why it’s important to realize how effective the propaganda is. It changed people’s minds and hearts, and made people believe that what they were doing was for the greater good. Once people are willing to make sacrifices for things that they believe is benefiting the entire human race, it’s very dangerous because that kind of “good will” could actually turn into something that is dark and tragic.
Photos by Dean Moses