Chinese-born filmmaker Nanfu Wang once again investigates women’s rights in China. This time she chronicles the powerlessness of childbearing women in the epoch of China’s notorious one child policy. Having previously directed Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary on activist Ye Haiyan’s advocacy work for girls’ and women’s rights, she now delves into China’s most recent past.
Along with co-director Jialing Zhang, Wang explores both the propaganda behind and enforcement of such a policy in an intimately personal way. Many documentaries of the policy are historical explorations in connection to politics or implications to country; this documentary is more personal, it is about gender violence, it is about the entwinement of national and personal identity and it is about when social circumstances lead to complicity.
One such example is the story of former Chinese abortion-doctor Yuan Huaru who now works in a fertility clinic as a form of ongoing catharsis. She estimates she performed over 50,000 abortions and/or forced sterilisations throughout her career, which included operations such as inducing early labours and eradicating babies. She keeps a flag for each child born through her aid.
There is no analysis of the policy making decision or interviews with those in central government (in any case the latter would be unlikely to participate) as that is not what this film is about. The people affected then and even now are the focus of this documentary, people tell their history as they remember not as it is written, and it is this necessary form of oral history that is captured.
Perhaps one of the most poignant points the film makes is the lack of desire for those stolen to re-connect with their parents; is it anger, as Nanfu Wang felt towards her own family members at the time of making the film? Or is it not being aware of the circumstances of their adoption out of China? Most people have heard of the one child policy yet the trade of babies – for me anyway – is definitely new.
Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow won over twenty awards internationally, will One Child Nation be equally acclaimed? It has already been awarded the U.S Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. As a consequence of how the film was made, one cannot help but feel compassion towards the perpetrators as well as the victims as all people interviewed fatalistically assert ‘the policy was very strict at that time’.