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‘One Child Nation’: Nanfu Wang Wanted Impact By Exploring China’s One-Child Policy in Under 90 Minutes

"If you can use one shot to tell the story, don't use two," the director says of maximizing the emotional impact of a documentary.

One Child Nation” filmmaker Nanfu Wang was already on a watch list in her homeland of China when she flew back to bring her newborn son to the village where she grew up. At least that’s what she told people. In reality, she felt it would be a reason the government accepted without too much trouble as she began filming her newest documentary, which investigates the effects of China’s one-child policy, which lasted from 1979 to 2015.

Wang, a product of the policy (which also allowed her parents to have another child five years later because they lived in a rural area), interviewed multiple members of her family, along with people from her hometown responsible for enforcing the policy (including the midwife who helped deliver her).

“There were a lot of things that I didn’t know until I was making the film. And there were also things that I knew before making the film, for example, the [forced] abortion and the sterilization and all of those things [the government forced some women to undergo] was something that I grew up hearing women talking about in the village,” she told the audience at an International Documentary Association screening as part of the organization’s annual series. “I remember neighbors or people living in the village, they would be talking about going to get a sterilization like going to shop, going to get groceries, using the terms so common[ly] to the extent that I forgot, I didn’t know what sterilization meant until later, now that I am a woman and I am a mother, and suddenly the terms all became much more brutal to me.”

In addition to forced abortions and sterilization (and killing babies after birth), there were other consequences to the policy. In Wang’s own family, her younger brother was sent to school and the filmmaker sent to vocational school when they didn’t have enough money for both to complete their education.

“China has been a patriarchal society for thousands of years. And a lot of people would argue — even my generation, women would argue — that the one child policy somehow helped them improve their status. In a lot of cities where the families eventually only had one daughter, they were forced to place the resources on the single daughter, so the daughters are able to get an education, unlike in previous generations where they have more siblings,” she said. “So when I hear that narrative, which comes from a lot of my friends, and people I know well, I felt both sad, and complicated, because it is true that women’s status needs to be improved, especially in China. And you see how my grandpa still, he would still say to me even today I am worth less than my younger brother, and my child is not really his great-grandson. But I do believe that education is one of the primary ways of improving the status that way. The policy had unintended consequences, and if some of them have accidentally improved the status, it wasn’t enough to justify the policy in any way.”

Eventually she was able to educate herself, and ultimately wound up with a journalism degree from NYU majoring in documentary.

There, she honed her disciplined editing — each of her films is between 80 and 85 minutes.

“If you can use one shot to tell the story, don’t use two — no matter how much you love the shot. All three films of mine are between 82 minutes and 85 minutes. Somehow I believe that there’s always a way to tell a story in a more concise and effective way, then you can get to that,” she said of her editing philosophy. “Every pass, every draft is aiming towards: Is this efficient? This story? Do I need this transition? Do I need this explanation? And what if we skip from A to Z and leave the B for the imagination?”

While the film reveals some very painful truths, Wang is ultimately optimistic about the state of the world.

“I always believed that history is progressive,” she said. “So sometimes it seems like it’s going backwards, especially now, but I believe eventually it will make progress because that’s what humankind is capable of.

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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