On Friday, January 3, Ezra Edelman and Laurie Anderson hosted a special screening, reception, and Q+A with Producer/Director, Nanfu Wang, for One Child Nation at the Tribeca Grill Loft in Manhattan. Producers, Julie Goldman, Carolyn Hepburn, and Christopher Clements were also in attendance.
One Child Nation, directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang explores the devastating effects of China’s now rescinded, One-Child-Policy, which made it illegal for couples to have more than one child in order to control the population size. The documentary uncovers shocking human rights violations from abandoned newborns to forced sterilizations and abortions, and includes stories from Wang’s own family members, revealing how generations of parents and children will be forever affected by this brutal social experiment.
Following the screening and lunch reception, Nanfu Wang sat down to answer some questions.
First of all congratulations on how well the film has done and on the Oscar nomination. I wanted to ask first of all about what has happened since the last time we talked in the summer since the shortlist. What has the reaction been to the film, especially in China? I know that it’s banned in China, right? I’m sure it’s made its way to the mainland, so do you know anything about what the reaction has been over there?
Nanfu Wang: Thank you to everyone for coming. So our film came into theater in August and in November the film was available for streaming on Amazon. I think about a day or two later the film was pirated in China because once it’s online, it’s almost everywhere. And Chinese people are really good at piracy (laughter). It surprised me because within just 24 hours they created Chinese subtitles and they made like a high-quality version. And overnight I saw the hashtag of the film title and the discussion of the film went viral in Chinese social media. I was obsessed with searching for it because I wanted to see what people were saying about it and it was really important to me to see how the Chinese audience reacted to it. I think it’s more important than seeing the audience reaction anywhere else. And it was interesting because there were two extreme reactions, on the spectrum of how much they liked the movie or hated the movie. One the one hand, people were shocked and in grief, saying what they learned about the film and what their own experiences had taught them, and on the other hand there were a lot of people who defended the government, and some of them included my friends, they would say you have been completely brainwashed by western culture and this film is a product of that. And this really hurt me because some of this came from lifelong friends and now we don’t talk anymore. Also after a few days of keeping up with the conversation online, Chinese government censored the title of the film. So if you search through the Chinese search engine for the Chinese title of One Child Nation, it will say “the results of this search cannot be displayed because it violated a related law and regulation.” So any post including that title is completely censored.
And has the Chinese media documented the Oscar shortlist? I mean, how would they handle that and the publicity?
Nanfu Wang: They are absurd to me because China, like any other country, is pretty obsessed with the Oscars. I think they might be even more obsessed. And the actual ceremony is live streamed and watched by millions of people in China, too. So they reported the news at the same time as the news came out here. When the shortlist was announced, a lot of Chinese publications and media reported the shortlist. And of course, every category, including the documentary category was reported and instead of 15 films, they said there were 14 films for the shortlist (laughter). And there were 14 titles and 14 posters and a lot of discussion occurred around that. So some people who were more sophisticated and educated on the Oscars started asking, “well what about the hidden one? The invisible film?” There were people joking, “Will China completely turn off the live stream during that segment?”
Have you heard from the state or have there been official responses to you individually about the film and about featuring members of your family in it?
Nanfu Wang: Not to me, but 2 national security agents went to see my mom several weeks ago. And it was night here and daytime in China and I got a message from my mom who said they showed up suddenly in the middle of the night, 2 AM. And I couldn’t call my mom because I knew her phone would be monitored so I was waiting for her updates for 3 hours. And finally my mom responded that they left and told me what had happened. So they showed up and questioned her for over 2 hours and I asked my mom what questions she was asked and I was surprised by how detailed they were. They were asking what she had observed when she had last visited me, who I hung out with, do I have gatherings at my home with other people, who do I get paid from, how much do I get paid, who pays for my work… At first I was wondering why they asked this and then I realized I think their concern was that I was involved in some bigger movement against China, bigger than my film.
What was your mom’s response to this? I’m sure this was unexpected for her.
Nanfu Wang: My mom has experienced this several times now since I made my first film so I think she has grown more and more savvy and experienced in handling these issues. When I made my first film, Hooligan Sparrow, that’s when she received the first national security check and of course my family was completely freaked out. My mom told me, “don’t ever make another film again. There are so many other professions, why do you have to do this!” And my mom would also say to me, “if there is any corruption or problems that you discover, report it to upper level government and don’t show that to Western media because it reflects badly on China.” But now, my mom- I think I’ve kind of helped to educate her, by showing her documentaries, by talking to her, so now several years later I asked my mom how she felt after the security agents investigated her, and I asked her if she was scared and she said she was fine. And I asked her, “How did you handle it? What did you tell them?” (we were corresponding through we-chat which is completely monitored by the Chinese government). My mom said, “Oh I didn’t tell them anything, I just lied, I wouldn’t tell them any of the truth.” I said, “Mom, the Chinese government is listening, and what you are saying is the truth!” (laughter).
What I love about this film and all your films is your personal voice and the sense of your presence as both the narrator and the filmmaker in the story. For this documentary, did you know that your personal story was gonna be a part of how you explored the issue of one child policy in China or did that decision only come about halfway through the film?
Nanfu Wang: I would say it was about halfway through production. It wasn’t my decision at the very beginning to put my story and my whole family into the film. It was during the making of the film, I started telling the team and the producers the stories in my family, as almost like anecdotes- “this happened to my aunt, this happened to my uncle.” And as these stories came into discussion the team was saying, “Wait. That happened in your family? That’s insane.” And to me it had always seemed quite normal. And the more we all talked, and the more I talked to other people, the reaction I was getting made me realize that my family is actually a microcosm of the entire society and it is a way of showing how one family and one person’s story is actually an example of millions of family’s stories.