One-child policy that was upheld in China from 1979 to 2015 undoubtedly contributed to the country’s technological and economic development, but also left some dire consequences to the ordinary people. Since its abolishment, the Chinese filmmakers are able to speak somewhat critically about its failed aspects. For instance, Wang Xiaoshuai tackled the topic in this year’s Berlinale competition title “So Long, My Son”. Documentarians Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing, however, approached it from a different angle that is both personal and wider social in “One Child Nation”. After the premiere at this year’s Sundance and an extended festival tour, the film was screened at Human Rights Dox competition of DokuFest in Prizren, Kosovo in the beginning of August, just before its theatrical release in the US.
Wang Nanfu got interested in this huge historical and socio-political topic when she got pregnant and when her childhood memories of propaganda, the status of her family and her status in it came back to her. Born during the height of the campaign in 1985, she was one of the rare children of her age who had siblings, which made her a bit of an outcast. (In the countryside, a family could actually have two children, at least 5 years apart from one another.) Her younger brother was more of a favoured child, according to the rural Chinese tradition that dismisses daughters, but she holds no grudges against him and her family, even though she had to put herself through school and eventually to emigrate to the United States in search of a better life.
She can find the economic reason for the policy that she never really questioned, but that is not the topic of her film in which she is the subject, the narrator, the interviewer and one of the directors. The issue here is the implementation of it, starting from the military-styled campaigns and the amount of brute force exercised by the party and family planning officials, the rigid and often brutal disregard of consequences to human lives, both of the women and their unborn babies, the forced sterilizations, induced labours and late-term abortions, the abandonment of (female) children so the couple could try again and have a son, and finally the adoption schemes to send the “surplus” babies abroad run by orphanages and silently supported by the government. On her travels she also finds the cases of twins separated at birth or even later (there is the case of one sister being taken away at the age of 10 after spending her life hidden in the pigsty), pays a visit to an American couple dedicated to tracing the adopted children to their biological parents and encounters the “baby smugglers” who were bringing the babies left on the streets to the orphanages.
What is perplexing here is not the lack of criticism towards the official political orders by the regular folks (after all, it is China, the country that has been always governed in an authoritarian way), but the usual lack of any human remorse by the ones who were tasked to enforce the policy. Her subjects are willing to open up, but it is usually to be apologetic for the role they played and to dismiss it like something that was not a matter of choice. She faces that in her village and even in her own extended family, with an only noble exception of a village midwife who decided to atone her sins by running a fertility clinic from her retirement.
Style-wise, “One Child Nation” is not an exceptional work of art and it is not intended to be. Hand-held camerawork by Wang and Liu Yuanchen does the trick as it is usually precise in aiming for a desired effect from the audience. It can be inquisitive, intimate, or even distanced to propose an overview of sorts. One of the production companies behind is Amazon, which explains the regular, non-intrusive style that is friendly for TV and other home platforms.
On the other hand, the ethics of the film is simply spot-on, as Wang knows exactly which role(s) she plays in particular segments: she is always a filmmaker, but also a reporter, a sympathetic ear, a curious, but non-judgemental intelligent person that dares to challenge the dogmas of the past and the present. Therefore “One Child Nation” is a good, informative documentary that is very easy to follow and that will certainly leave the mark on the viewer without ever going for over the top sentimentality and unnecessary pathos.