One Child Nation (USA, 2019)

With her Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang continues to demonstrate an incredibly impressive gift for layering and connecting multiple stories and voices, each of which remains individual while also contributing to a larger narrative and polemic. Similarly, One Child Nation and Wang’s other two films – Hooligan Sparrow (2016) and I Am Another You (2017) – are highly interconnected in that they all arguably take on the charged issue of bodily autonomy. Ye Haiyan’s women’s rights activism relating to a case of child rape as she and her colleagues are pursued throughout China. Dylan Olsen’s conscious decision to lead a nomadic, homeless life in the U.S. in response to his mental health issues. And now Wang and her family’s personal experiences and perspectives of forced sterilisation, abortion, and/or abandonment of an offspring under China’s one-child policy (1979-2015), which then ripple outwards to link with those of acquaintances new and old, local and international.

From one film to the next, Wang addresses themes of autonomy and choice in various contexts while simultaneously forging a mode of documentary filmmaking that is at once personal, collaborative, collective, and self-reflexive. Though One Child Nation is the least dynamic in terms of its expository audiovisual aspects compared to her first two films, it is the most ambitious in its scope, most complex in its gradual interlocking of perspectives at the local, intra/national, and international levels, and most heated in its motivation as it examines state implementation of the one-child policy and its impact on bodies and minds.

Wang’s ability to balance the personal, collaborative, collective, and self-reflexive is never grandiose or expected. Each of her films begins with herself, her point of view, which seemingly gives the impression that the film in question will unveil and explore a small context that begins and ends with her. One Child Nation is no exception, as it begins with Wang situating herself deep within the subject of the one-child policy via a voiceover that speaks of being born in 1985 juxtaposed with a montage of family photos on the image-track. Moreover, she speaks of and shows how her childhood memories are ensconced in a visual culture that promoted the one-child policy amongst the population. Even more specifically, her pregnancy and the birth of her first child prompt her to revisit the policy and its impact on her parents and the kind of family they ended up having, as her voiceover expresses, “becoming a mother felt like giving birth to my memories.” Thus, the initial part of the film focuses on the familial, with Wang’s voiceover, archival stills, and sit-down conversations with her mother and grandfather dialoguing with each other to provide one set of perspectives of the one-child policy. Yet the fact that Wang brings her infant son to her home village in Jiangxi Province to speak with her mother and grandfather not only makes her realise “how traumatic it was just to become a parent in China” but also begins to extend the “familial” to experiences other than her own and establish disturbing links, most notably between trafficking and international adoption.

Wang’s mother Zaodi speaking of witnessing in their village the homes of families being demolished because they refused forced sterilization links directly to Wang speaking with a former head of their village and his stories of the difficulties faced when implementing the policy. Wang’s not-so-subtle framing of the former village official’s sit-down interview in his home with a picture of Mao on the upper left hints at her critical stance vis-à-vis the policy and the aggressive nature of her examination of it and its gender bias.

But Wang is too smart of a storyteller to simply capture herself vent her anger and horror. Instead, building up and conveying the strong emotions for her is the seamless navigation between the local, intra/national, and international perspectives provided by her choice of social actors and their familial experiences with the policy, which are constantly interwoven with those of her family. There is Huaru Yuan, the midwife of her family’s home village, who now treats only infertility cases to make amends for her part in the forced sterilisations and abortions that medical staffs performed around the country. As she candidly states, “I was the executioner.” One of the film’s most visually affecting moments takes place in Yuan’s home, specifically a room that is gradually lit to reveal wall-to-wall flags, gifts of gratitude from families who were able to have babies with her help. There is artist Wang Peng, whose works graphically address the traumatic magnitude of the policy and thereby vehemently counter the official discourse of its remembering, particularly in light of his own family. Then there is Yueneng Duan, who was imprisoned for having engaged in trafficking, as was the rest of his family. Duan’s segment is as unsettling on an aural level as that of Wang Peng’s on a visual level due to his frank descriptions of the numbers of abandoned infants seen, rescued, and then trafficked to state-run orphanages beginning in 1992-1993, the same years that the country began its international adoption program. Finally, there is the Utah-based couple that constitutes Research-China, which provides the service of aiding Chinese adoptees with tracing their birth families and grew out of the couple’s three adopted girls from China. The connecting of the dots from one issue/situation to another is not only seamless but also suspenseful, as the scale of the impact of the policy increases with each new encounter/interview.

Crucial to the seamless and suspenseful connecting-of-the-dots is Wang’s voiceover. She maintains a conversational tone throughout the film and invites/includes the spectator in her journey of learning and thinking process, with one interview/situation prompting her to think of or remember something else that she then seeks to find out, which in turn gives way to another thought or memory and another phase of investigation, and so on. In this way, Wang presents an ingenuous aural/visual presence who gives the impression that events and connections are unfolding organically and even spontaneously. Indeed, Wang never gives way to anger or horror in her voiceover and she never demonises anyone in the film, including those who find the state policy an appropriate necessity despite what they experienced.

Instead, it is Duan, the former trafficker, who voices the very question that drives the film: “[The state-run orphanages] paid me; shouldn’t they be prosecuted first?”