Being pregnant with her son affected how documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang saw the world — particularly the One Child Policy she knew while growing up in China. From 1979 to 2015, the government only allowed families one offspring.
“It was that sense of protection, and fear that anything bad would happen to him, made me start thinking about the One Child Policy, and the women and children,” said “One Child Nation” director Wang, when she was guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “I couldn’t imagine living under that kind of fear, as a woman not knowing if you can protect your child, whether during pregnancy or after it was born, what that would be like.”
Wang started asking her mother and the women of her generation what they experienced. She returned to her village with her baby boy to interview family members and neighbors. She started to uncover stories of forced abortions, abandoned babies, and the human trafficking that fed the China-to-U.S. adoption market. Yet, what really shocked Wang was the attitude of the people who lived through such horror. Virtually everyone she interviewed blindly followed the policy, accepting it as necessary.
“How could you, as a parent who saw and let your child die, still say, ‘I didn’t have a choice’ — and everybody said so,” said Wang. “At some point during filmmaking, I almost thought, ‘I want to shut off the camera. I don’t want to listen to the same narrative again.'”
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To Wang, this stood in sharp contrast to the biological imperative she experienced as a new mother. She was well aware of the Chinese government’s propaganda and the violence used to enforce the it, but she could not comprehend how so many were brainwashed into accepting the policy as something good. Desperate to make sense of it, she found herself stuck in the editing room.
“And then, over days of frustration in editing over, ‘How am I going to get over this,’ and suddenly I thought, ‘Why don’t I just convey that — convey that sense of everyone’s helplessness and show it in the film,” said Wang. She used footage of subjects, including family members, repeating the propaganda over and over again, while juxtaposing it to the reality of the horror that had happened. “Whether it’s a holocaust, or any kind of a war, and people are simply just following orders and felt like they had no choice,” said Wang. “That was the same mentality. It wasn’t different.”
Which is why when Wang came across photos on the internet of the dead babies that had been abandoned, she knew instantly she would use them in the film. Eventually she even tracked down the artist who archived the photos and used them in his own work. This became a topic of some consternation among Wang’s creative team and funders, as the images would eventually earn the film an R-rating. The director refused to compromise.
“Why [should] filmmakers censor something on behalf of the government, or for their benefit?” said Wang. “How would the future generations know? How would this part of history be truly reflected and documented? That’s our responsibility, to not shy away from the brutality of the history of the policy.”
“One Child Nation” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.