China's one-child policy, a population control measure that made it illegal for couples to have more than one child, ended in 2015, but Chinese citizens still grapple with the aftermath of its enforcement.
Award-winning documentarian Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow, I Am Another You) and Jialing Zhang take a long, hard look at that fallout in their well-crafted new film, One Child Nation, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
Wang and Zhang uncover one shocking human rights violation after another. The interview subjects talk about abandoned newborns, forced sterilizations and abortions, and government abductions. "It was really fucked up," says one city official rather bluntly.
Wang also shares her own experiences as a new mother and provides firsthand accounts of her upbringing with archival propaganda material that shows how the government tried to instill the one-child policy in children before they could even speak.
Fearlessly interviewing government officials and former human traffickers, Wang also shows how theatrical performances and even children's songs were used to promote the one-child policy.
The policy had its detractors. Peng Wang, a visual artist, was among those who resisted it. In the film, he talks about how he began exploring its atrocities in his artwork in 1996. He recalls finding a fetus in a trash heap that he photographed. It was wrapped in a yellow plastic bag that read "medical waste." He found it truly disturbing and as he photographed more trash heaps, he uncovered more fetuses. "I wanted to gather these fetuses to show the fragility of life," he explains, adding that "the most tragic thing for a nation is to have no memory."
A journalist exposed how some city governments were complicit in selling abandoned babies to orphanages that worked with human traffickers to make the children available for adoption. He wrote an expose for a Chinese newspaper and then was promptly fired and moved to Hong Kong to escape censorship and write a book about his findings.
While the film focuses on China's one-child policy, its strength comes from how it exposes the way the country manipulated public sentiment and enforced patriarchal values, "taking away women's control of their own bodies," as Wang puts it. Given that we live during a time when propaganda runs rampant and women's rights can't be taken for granted, the film feels particularly relevant.