New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival has finally begun. The annual festival has brought together filmmakers, producers and critics alike for this year’s lineup of new films, TV shows and even virtual reality exhibits encompass all genres and falls nothing short of amazing. One film being shown this year is One Child Nation, a documentary that explores the detrimental effects of China’s famous one-child policy that caused a controversial stir throughout the country and globally. The film was directed and produced by Nanfu Wang, who is also a mother and grew up during the one-child policy era.
“China’s One Child Policy was in place for over thirty-five years, and it touched the lives of millions of people. Yet somehow, the specific details of how the policy was implemented are not widely known. This is true not just abroad, but in China as well. I grew up in China and thought I knew everything there was to know about the policy. But when I started to ask questions about it, every new detail was a revelation. We hope this film will fill in the gaps in the official history of the One Child Policy – hopefully it will show what the policy really meant for the people who lived it” Wang said.
Up until October 2015, China had a strict policy enforced that prevented Chinese families from having more than one child. The policy was then called the one-child policy. Implemented in the late 1900’s, China’s government mandated the one-child policy in response to the country’s issue of overpopulation. China passed the threshold of being the home to more than 900 million people, with an approximate population of 970 million in 1980.
This is not the first politically sensitive projects Wang has produced, as the basis of her previous works all have the common theme of defying social norms and revealing unjust conditions in society. Her 2016 documentary Hooligan Sparrow, which premiered at Sundance, is about the dangerous but necessary journey of human rights activists on the run from government officials after exposing the sexual abuse of local elementary school girls by their principal.
“I moved away from China several years ago and didn’t have to worry about getting government approval to have a child. Having my first child made me think about what it would have been like for the state to control such an essential aspect of my humanity, and I wanted to explore my questions about that in the film” Wang expressed.
Filmed over a course of 8 weeks between 2016 to 2018, One Child Nation follows the difficult stories of those who experienced the one-child policy firsthand. Wang and her camera traveled throughout rural and urban areas in the country to interview victims of the policy and even those who played a role in implementing it. Propaganda played a big role in the execution and spread of the one-child policy. China’s government was able to influence citizens in to believing that having only one child was the best decision they could make as citizens for the greater good of their country. TV shows, movies, commercials, schools and neighborhoods were saturated with this message as a never-ending reminder, making it nearly impossible for them to escape it.
“I think, to put it simply, the film is about social engineering versus individuals – it’s about how a nation manipulated every individual to give up their own identity, their own rights, to follow the national agenda” Wang explained.
When evaluating China’s one-child policy, it is essential to do so from an economic standpoint as well as a social standpoint. Although this policy was a clear assault on basic human rights, the reality is that Chinese women were victims of an inhumane and unequal policy created by a patriarchal government. There was a clear distinction between the repercussions dealt with by families and the repercussions dealt with by the mother in those families. Predictably, the women subjected to this law seemed to suffer the most. As a result of this, limiting familial households’ members was just a fraction of the trauma that this policy caused to millions of people.
Most families were able to abide by the policy while others were not. There were various cases of families having more than one child and the consequences were severely inhumane. Women were illegally sterilized without their consent and many mothers endured forced abortions. Babies were separated from their mothers by Chinese officials. Some were lucky enough to at least make it to an orphanage but this was not the case for all. Remnants of newborns were discarded in the streets, hidden in piles of trash and some lying in plain sight.
Wang realized that she was more out of touch with what was truly happening in the country than she initially thought. “I had never heard of the government confiscating babies, so that’s something that really surprised me information-wise. I was aware to a very limited extent of the abortions, I was aware of the sterilizations, but discovering the true scale of all of it was still shocking to me” said Wang.
From 1979 to 2015, The one-child policy was prominent for more than 30 years in China. According to their government, the population has since become stable; however, this is nowhere near the end of their list of national issues. The fear of overpopulation is still present and now there is a very, very wide gap between the country’s female to male ratio, now being more men than women. Thus, the two-child policy was enacted.
“The Two Child policy is the end of the film, but it’s not really the end of the story of the One Child Policy. It’s really just the next chapter in the same story. I hope that people will see that with the beginning of the Two Child Policy, the memories of the One Child Policy are starting to be erased. If those memories aren’t preserved, it seems inevitable that history will repeat itself” Wang said.
One Child Nation is an emotional yet necessary view in to the millions of lives affected by one decision. The film will officially premiere at Tribeca Film Festival on April 30th. Find out more about the film and Nanfu Wang at www.tribecafilm.com/festival.