First published in Film Comment on Aug 12, 2019.
Nanfu Wang was born in China in 1985 and grew up through the last few decades of its “one child era”—i.e., the period from the late 1970s to 2015 during which the state enforced a one-child-per-family policy through law, force, and ubiquitous propaganda. Thanks to the latter, Wang—who was the firstborn in one of the lucky rural families permitted to have a second child—never fully realized the destructive extent of the policy on her family, community, and her own self.
Wang left China for college in the States, and it was only when she had her first child that she began to reflect on her experiences of the one child regime. “Becoming a mother felt like giving birth to my memories,” she says in the opening scenes of her doc One Child Nation, co-directed with fellow NYU alum Jialing Zhang. In the film, Wang expands that simple, personal motivation into a wide-ranging inquiry into the psychological workings—and vestiges—of the decades-long policy.
Wang initially approached Zhang to collaborate because she wasn’t sure if she would be able to return to China after the government censure she faced while shooting her previous film, Hooligan Sparrow (2013), which follows the eponymous Chinese activist’s protests against an elementary school principal accused of sexually abusing his students. Wang was ultimately able to return, and she begins the doc in her hometown. As she interviews her family and friends, secrets and guilt-laden confessions start spilling out—including, horrifically, stories of girl children given away or left to die so the parents could try again for a boy.
Following these leads, Wang interviews a wide variety of people who either effected or were affected by the policy. A former enforcer admits she killed many infants back in the day and now works as a fertility doctor to try and make up for her sins, while another, an award-winning family planner, proudly claims she has no remorse and would do it all over again. Some of the most moving, difficult threads in the documentary follow the secondary victims of the one-child policy: a family that rescued abandoned children and sold them to state-run orphanages, only to later be imprisoned for human trafficking, as well as adoptive American parents who were never told that their children were taken from their biological parents by force. Wang is remarkably clear-eyed as she weaves together these stories, neither condoning the people who enabled the policy on the ground nor losing sight of the bigger picture—of the ways in which an authoritarian regime erodes all sense of individual agency and responsibility.
Wang and Zhang tread a wide scope and take on a beast of a subject, but One Child Nation is refreshingly (and forcefully) modest and human-scaled. Simple, direct, and never sensationalistic in their approach, the co-directors maintain their focus on the theft of autonomy—especially that of women, over their bodies and lives—that has left a whole generation feeling helpless. Their film is an attempt to intervene in the fatalistic narrative of propaganda, an effort that feels especially urgent as China replaces all its ads, posters, and songs promoting the one-child policy with the new two-child policy, intended to correct the drastic reduction in workforce caused by the former. The details change, but the intent remains the same: to clamp down on women’s right to choose and a nation’s right to remember.
In advance of the release of One Child Nation in theaters on August 9, Wang and Zhang talked to Film Comment about the challenges of evading government scrutiny while filming in China, contending with gendered violence, and weaponizing individual and collective memories against propaganda.
When I first read about your film at Sundance I was expecting something more polemical, or an expose. I was surprised to see that it’s really a psychic profile—a profile of the people who grew up under the one child policy and of how deeply the policy has affected the psyche of a community.
Nanfu Wang: I’m glad that you said it that way because we really hoped to get the complexity out and focus on not just what happened but why it happened. From very early on we both didn’t want to make a TV documentary—like a history or an expose—with lots of exposition or talking heads. The few encounters we had with the people who enforced the policy showed us that these are all nice people. We felt so much empathy towards them and it became our goal to not let the audience judge them, to not depict of them in any way that would make people look at them and say, “Those people are evil or backwards or uneducated, that’s why they did those things.” Instead, we wanted to show these are nice people, and like a lot of atrocities around the world this was carried out by individuals. Most of the time, the individuals were not evil inherently but they participated because of the social circumstances and because the authorities distorted their sense of morality. That became something that we really wanted to explore. We asked ourselves a lot: why did they do that? If we were them, would we do the same thing? And turns out, the answer is usually that we might have done the same thing if we were them, if we had never left China and we were under this sort of indoctrination for our whole life.
You mostly speak to everyday people, ordinary people in the documentary. Even though you interview many people who were involved in the family planning system, you didn’t talk to any bureaucrats or authorities. Was that entirely due to lack of access or was it also a creative decision?
NW: Well, we do have officials from the village level and the award-winning family planner. We could only interview enforcers; in terms of the policymakers, we are talking about the central government level, who are too high up. There was no way we could ever get access to them and also no way we could even finish the film, because that is just not how the government in China works. You can’t just send a letter or email or phone call to request an interview with a government official. There’s no channel to get access to the top leaders who initiated the policy. So we chose [to focus on] the local government level, to film people who actually were carrying out the policy, not drafting the policy.
You [Nanfu] faced some issues with government scrutiny and surveillance when you were making your previous film, Hooligan Sparrow. Was there a fallout from that experience that bled into this one and informed how you had to go about making this documentary?
NW: The first thing directly impacted by Hooligan Sparrow was that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go back to China. We didn’t know for a long time, and even the first time we went back was nerve-wracking; we didn’t know what was going to happen. The second lesson that I learned was not to stay in public hotels, not to take trains or any public transportation because that’s how the government would check an activist or anybody that they wanted to target. By checking their ID registration for those places.
Jialing Zhang: That was one of our many challenges during production, how to finish the film without getting unwanted attention from the government. So we kept each trip very short and efficient and we prepared very carefully. Every time we traveled to China we made all kinds of emergency plans.
JZ: For example, we both have a GPS tracking app on our phones and I monitored her location every time and I paid attention to how many hours she spends in each specific location. If she stays too long, then I will be very alert. We had decided, if she is missing for a few hours, a few days, what kind of plan we should take accordingly. For all these trips we would prepare every hour very carefully. Then luckily we finished the film and we were able to bring the footage back to the U.S. It was a little bit nerve-wracking, but we made our way out.
Since the film has come out and garnered attention have you faced any sort of pushback?
NW: So far we haven’t had any direct confrontation from the government. The only thing that we could see is that news about the film would sometimes be censored. In China they have a website, Douban, which is like the equivalent of IMDB where they have pages for films. Somebody had made a page for us when we premiered at Sundance, and within days that page was taken down. So the title is still there, but when you click, it says this page doesn’t exist.
I noticed that almost all of your interviews take place in Mandarin, but the narration and the framework are in English. That made me wonder—whom do you perceive as the audience for the documentary, and whom is it addressed towards?
NW: I think for both of us, who are Chinese and who lived in China for almost our entire lives, Chinese audiences are always the most important, because we want them to know what happened in the country, which even we didn’t know before. And we believe awareness is the first step for any change. If we want China to improve, the only way is for them to be aware first.
But we are super aware of how small the chance is to have any official showing in China. So we want the film to be seen outside of China, by as many people as possible, and we believe the more exposure it has outside of China, the more likely it is that Chinese people are going to become aware of this film, are going to have their friends who study and work in the U.S., in Europe, tell them about the film. That’s why English is used for the voiceover narration, because that’s the way that we can reach out to as many people as possible outside of China first.
There was one other thing about language that I didn’t realize until recently. So for Hooligan Sparrow I did an English voiceover, and a year later I wanted to make the film available to China, so I started trying to record a Chinese voiceover. I started recording it, basically translating from English, but I realized it was really difficult for me to say it in Chinese. I never thought of language in that way, but One Child Nation made me think about how language is a way to control you, tell you how to think, and what to think. In Chinese, the words “human rights” or “universal values” or “democracy,” all these very neutral, to some extent positive words, are associated with negative meanings. “Human rights” in Chinese has the connotation of radical people, rebels, even criminals. Like the word is associated with “illegal.” So when I tried to do the voiceover in Chinese, I realized I felt uncomfortable saying some words because they don’t have the same meaning as they have in English. I felt I became politically aware and awake when I learned English, when I use English to work.
The strand of gender violence that you brought out in the film, that’s something that I also grew up around in India. But what I found interesting in the doc is that a lot of people you interviewed seemed to be displacing their sexism onto the one child policy. So there’s this idea that girl children were abandoned or given away because of the one child policy, whereas the root of that problem is that people don’t want the girl child. How did you navigate those two things while you were talking to people?
NW: The two things are interwoven, and of course, the patriarchal society definitely compounded the one child policy. If the one child policy wasn’t there, the girls would still be discriminated against, which they still are today. I think what the one child policy contributed is that [without it] the family wouldn’t go to that extreme to abandon the daughter. They probably would not have distributed their resources equally as they would to their sons, but they definitely would have kept the daughter, whereas under the one child policy it was just so common that parents would leave their daughters to die or give their daughter away, which is against the human biological instinct of protecting your own children.
There is another narrative: a lot of people believe that the one child policy actually improved women’s status, because in a lot of urban areas, those who only had one daughter focused their entire resources on her, and a lot of girls today of our generation would say, yeah, if I had a younger brother I wouldn’t have been able to go to school. But that shouldn’t be the reason to appreciate the one child policy; instead, people should actually look at other ways they can improve women’ status, which still is far from equal in China, in education and work and almost any aspect of life.
I’m curious about this idea that people’s biological instinct to protect their babies would have made sure that they at least kept the girl child if the one child policy didn’t exist. But growing up in India, where there is no restriction on how many children you can have—although people are encouraged to have just two children—people still abort or abandon female infants, just out of poverty, or not wanting to feed or bear the burden of a girl. That’s why I was wondering—these are two really tricky issues that also exist independently, and it’s interesting to hear your interviewees talk about them in a way that seemed like they were trying to sidestep the real problem.
JZ: I mean traditionally, in Chinese society, they have a strong preference for boys because in agriculture, boys are essential for the family to survive. But what happened with the one child policy is that if you can only have one child, then a lot of families just abandon the girls and keep trying until they have a boy. For the past three or four decades, being able to feed your daughter is not an issue in China because the economy has improved generally. And I think the reason most families abandoned their daughter is because of the one child policy. It’s not poverty anymore.
One of your interviewees, the artist Peng Wang, said the worst thing that could happen to a nation is losing its memory. Your film sort of responds to that assertion because you’re sifting through your own memories. You’re trying to resist propaganda by retrieving personal memory.
NW: Memory is the central part of the individual identity… and I think that’s true with a nation, too. What a nation is is how the nation remembers its past, and with the authoritarian government in China, so far recent history has been written in the authorities’ narrative; how they came into power, and what has happened since they came into power, have been revised in a way that fits into the official narrative. So a lot of the people in the younger generations, people even in our generation, some of them would never have heard of the Tiananmen Square protest, the protest that’s known throughout the entire world. And let alone the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, all those memories have been erased or lost to a certain extent, because the people who lived through it have either died or are in prison or in exile. The one child policy is still recent and it just ended in 2015. But we are already seeing how the government is trying to erase everything by replacing the propaganda. The kind of propaganda we discovered in our film probably could not exist in the next five years. We are really concerned that in ten years, how people remember the one child policy will be exactly what the government says about the one child policy.
JZ: The people in our film, they don’t really have a voice in China, and in Chinese media, they don’t exist. In China, there are certain things we are told to remember: that the propaganda version of the one child policy is correct, the government officials did a great contribution to the country, and that people who have only one child are patriotic. But by doing this film we want to offer our autonomy to the people to keep the collective memories of our generation. As filmmakers, if we don’t keep the memories, they will die in history, they will disappear.
What you’ve just described is how propaganda obscures the past. But another thread that came up in your film is how propaganda changes how you perceive the future and the trajectory of your life. A lot of people that you interviewed said, “This was my fate.” But policy is not fate, people make policy. That’s something that you really have to contend with when you work against propaganda, right? People start to think of it as a universal reality or spiritual belief.
JZ: Yeah, there’s a feeling of powerlessness in our parents’ generation because a lot of major decisions about their lives were made by the government, including how many children they can have. It’s very sad because in China there’s little awareness of individual rights, and of reproductive rights as basic human rights. To some extent it’s still that way, but we hope that our film can make a little difference to help people realize that those areas are just something the government should not be involved with. It’s a basic human right to have reproductive choice.