Director Nanfu Wang’s achievements in the documentary sphere are well known in the U.S., but in her native China it’s a different story. When her latest film, One Child Nation, made the Oscar documentary feature shortlist earlier this month, Wang says, the news was censored in China.
“A lot of Chinese media outlets… reported on the shortlist titles for the Academy Awards, but instead of 15 on the [documentary feature] shortlist, they only reported 14. So One Child Nation is not on it,” Wang says. “I find it a little absurd.”
There’s an obvious explanation for the apparent decision to scrub One Child Nation from Chinese media—it paints a devastating picture of the way the Chinese government enforced its one-child policy, in effect from 1979-2015. The policy, designed to curb population growth, banned couples from having more than one child (with very limited exceptions).
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Wang and co-director Jialing Zhang interviewed former government officials and others tasked with carrying out the strict policy.
“In every level of the government there was a family planning office. People’s job was to monitor women down to like when their periods come and whether a woman was pregnant or not. So, if a pregnant woman gave birth to their first child, within a month they would be forced to have a sterilization,” Wang states. “And if women resisted, let’s say if they tried to hide in a different city, in a different village, once they were discovered they would be taken into a clinic to have a forced abortion.”
In the film, former midwife Huaru Yuan (who delivered Wang in 1985) reveals her role enforcing the one-child law.
“I’ve done a total of between 50,000 to 60,000 sterilizations and abortions,” Yuan declares, saying she now feels guilt about it. “I aborted and killed babies. Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it. But I had no choice; it was the government’s policy.”
Female babies were routinely cast aside, Wang says.
“This happened very commonly in rural areas… There is a traditional value that has been going on for thousands of years in China that male is valued more than female,” the director notes. “So when the one-child policy started, families had only one chance to have a baby. They would give away or abandon the daughters in the hope of trying again for a son.”
It occurred within her extended family, according to Wang.
“My own uncle… left his daughter in the market right after she was born and then she died,” she reveals. “And ’til this day it is still very painful and [he] suffered from the trauma because he had to do that.”
Wang maintains the one-child policy wound up fueling a kind of international trade in babies.
“When we were making this film we discovered in China in the early 1990s, when the international adoption program started, the government realized that there was profit to be made through this program,” she asserts. “In some provinces government officials would, instead of forcing a woman to abort, they allowed the woman to carry the baby into full term… Then after that, they would go take the baby away and put them into the orphanage by saying that the family had violated the one-child policy. So the child was confiscated and eligible for international adoption.”
Deadline reached out to the Chinese government through its embassy in Washington DC, seeking comment on the film’s assertions, but did not receive a reply.
One Child Nation emphasizes how the Chinese government used propagandistic messaging to convince the public of the wisdom of the one-child policy. In one 1998 propaganda video excerpted in the film, a narrator assures listeners, “The one-child policy was essential. Since its implementation… our country has prevented 338 million births and saved $130 million worth of resources.”
But in late 2015, the government ended the policy. Now the rule is two children maximum per couple, with fresh propaganda disseminated to praise that ideal.
“The government has never admitted that the one-child policy has done a lot of harm on the society,” Wang comments. “Instead, when they opened up the two-child policy… the overall official narrative from China is now China has grown into a much more powerful country and we are able to provide more resources to each individual, so the government is making strategic planning to allow a family to have more than one child, and two is the best.”
One Child Nation, distributed by Amazon Studios, has won critics awards and honors at film festivals worldwide, including Traverse City, Full Frame, Cologne and Sheffield. It premiered at Sundance last January, winning the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary. One Child Nation is also being seen in China—by surreptitious means.
“A lot of people, citizens, they managed to watch the film either through pirated copies, or… they were able to use VPN,” Wang notes. “We thought if the film can provoke Chinese people into thinking, can change one person’s mind [to] accept some kind of changes, then we would feel rewarded.”
Wang now makes her home in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two-year-old son. She believes the message behind One Child Nation applies to more than just China.
“I think our film shows what would happen if a government takes away the choice from women, or from any individual,” she says. “But a government trying to control women’s reproductive rights is not only happening in China. It’s happening in many countries, including in the U.S. There’s always a different form by limiting the access to reproductive rights, limiting the access to abortion, and they both are trying to control women and to take away their choices.”
She adds, “For me, I really just hope the film would serve as a true record in China’s history as to what happened during the one-child policy. And I also hope it would be a reminder for people outside of China to really reflect on their own society and notice the propaganda around themselves, and pay attention to the government’s policy.”
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