THE STORY – China’s One Child Policy, the extreme population control measure that made it illegal for couples to have more than onechild, may have ended in 2015, but the process of dealing with the trauma of its brutal enforcement is only just beginning. The sweeping ONECHILDNATION explores the ripple effect of this devastating social experiment, uncovering one shocking human rights violation after another – from abandoned newborns, to forced sterilizations and abortions, and government abductions. Wang digs fearlessly into her own personal life, weaving her experience as a new mother and the firsthand accounts of her family members into archival propaganda material and testimony from victims and perpetrators alike, yielding a revelatory and essential record of this chilling, unprecedented moment in human civilization.
THE CAST – Nanfu Wang
THE TEAM – Nanfu Wang & Jialing Zhang (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 85 Minutes
By Christopher Cross
As China grew increasingly afraid of economic turmoil and increased starvation in the 1970s, due to the excess population, they evoked a policy that would hypothetically save the nation from many of its problems. “One Child Nation” explores China’s one-child policy: from traumatic body counts to a hive-mind of acceptance that the policy was the right thing to do despite any lingering emotional trauma. Nanfu Wang co-directs this film that begins as an exploration of the policy she was born under and leads to an exploration of how a government dictated the life choices of everyone living in China at the time – an impact that still holds today.
Picking up when China has finally ended the one-child policy in 2015, Nanfu Wang heads back to her home village to look at her past under a new lens. Comprised of interviews with her family, the midwife that helped bring Wang into this world (and was forced to keep many children from being born), and one of the officials who upheld the one-child policy, there’s a very clear portrait of decades of oppression. “One Child Nation” ultimately takes Wang on a journey to those few who fought against the one-child policy, those who firmly believed in its effectiveness and importance, and the people who are trying to make amends for what happened.
As a documentary, what’s most interesting is how personal stories are mined for more detail on how the government operated during the policy. There are very few complaints that could be lodged against the film because it is a fairly personal and engrossing portrait of lives dictated by policy. That stuff works without any extra effort, and that goes to show how powerful the story is by itself. Personal anecdotes showcase a bevy of emotions that are only strengthened as the film goes on. The fact that the movie manages to weave in elements of corruption and ruthlessness on the government’s behalf, all framed around these heart-wrenching tales, shows an expertise in informing and evoking emotion.
Where the movie tends to fall short is when it seems like the director wants a storyline to happen and doesn’t necessarily let the movie grow organically. An example of this is a later subplot that comes with an admission from the director that they couldn’t tie up the story the way they wanted to. Which is fitting for how expansive the one-child policy reaches. Families were torn apart and it is rather impossible to create happiness given the situation and how it was imposed. But much of the film flounders at really highlighting the big reveals in the interviews that it’s unsurprising that a storyline that simply can’t be finished isn’t turned into a more dramatically hefty point.
As a new mother, Nanfu Wang comes to the table ready to navigate the mindset of other mothers who had to come to terms with having only one child or making the difficult decision to abandon a child (usually a daughter) in the hopes of having a son next time. As one would expect, she’s not exactly sympathetic to those who abandoned their children, but you do get an idea of where they’re coming from even if it’s right or wrong. As the propaganda machine turns, it is evident how much of the way people behaved was instilled in them by the government. Pro-policy slogans and murals litter even the most rural of villages just to remind people that there is no benefit to having more than one child.
That simple point is where “One Child Nation” derives most of its impact. There are entire generations of Chinese who believe in the effectiveness and necessity of the one-child policy. There are dissenters, but they are presented as few and far between. Which is what makes reveals of trash piles with fetuses in them and high infant body counts all the more shocking – people still believe it to be the way it should be. With so many people who wish they didn’t have to get rid of their child or didn’t have to be sterilized, it’s staggering to find how many would do it all the same if they had to do it again. In that simple fact is what makes “One Child Nation” a powerful look at a world shaped by propaganda and enforcement.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A collection of personal stories that provide context and depth to the one-child policy.
THE BAD – Interesting and shocking facts aren’t given enough heft, and it occasionally feels like stories are being forced into the film.