One of the first things we see in “One Child Nation” is a close-up of a jar that, after a few moments, reveals itself to be holding a carefully preserved fetus. The image is a stark and disquieting piece of evidence, a remnant of one of the hundreds of thousands of pregnancies that were terminated by order of the Chinese government under its infamous one-child policy. The visuals might give you pause for any number of reasons, especially if you’ve seen similar (though often bloodier) images in materials commonly distributed by American anti-abortion groups. But Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, the directors of this disturbing, infuriating but scrupulously non-exploitative movie, have a rather different moral purpose in mind.
At one point Wang, who also narrated and edited the film, draws a blunt connection between women who were forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations under the one-child policy and women fighting for abortion rights in the U.S. Both struggles, she suggests, exemplify what happens when the state denies women their reproductive freedom. It’s a pointed argument that sums up this documentary’s deeply personal, implicitly feminist worldview, whether or not those in the audience are inclined to agree.
What seems inarguable, however, is the barbarism of a policy that for nearly four decades restricted Chinese families from having more than one child. Introduced in 1979 and written into the constitution in 1982, the policy aimed to slow population growth in a country that, at the time, had close to 1 billion people and increasingly limited resources. It proved extremely effective — too effective, as recent headlines have made clear: China now faces an aging population and a diminished work force ill equipped to lead the country into a future of much-vaunted financial and technological supremacy.
The government’s abrupt reversal of its stance — it officially ended the policy and implemented a two-child maximum in 2015, and is facing pressures to end restrictions altogether — would be laughable if the human implications presented here weren’t so cumulatively wrenching. The individual stories that make up “One Child Nation,” the worthy winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize for U.S. documentaries, illuminate an entire history of institutional corruption, medical brutality and pervasive misogyny — a history that was both masked and advanced by a national propaganda campaign of near-Orwellian absurdity.
“Fewer children makes for a happier life!” and other slogans pour from the screen in a dizzying montage of folk opera and dance performances, all written specifically to extol the benefits of the policy and to threaten those who did not comply. A family that had more than one child might have its house demolished, which seems like minor punishment compared with the horrors that were frequently inflicted on women who had already had one child. These included forced sterilizations and abortions, which in some cases meant killing newborn babies after inducing labor.
Wang’s own mother managed to escape this gruesome fate: She was able to have a second child, Wang’s brother, partly because the two were born five years apart and partly because it was easier to flout the policy in rural areas (in this case, a village in China’s eastern Jiangxi province). This isn’t the first time Wang, who moved to the U.S. when she was 26, has woven her own experience into one of her documentaries, as she did in “Hooligan Sparrow,” her muckraking 2016 portrait of the women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan. But the director’s presence in front of the camera here — she began shooting this film not long after becoming a mother herself — gives the proceedings an especially poignant dimension.
Much of the documentary unfolds in Wang’s hometown, where she interviews family members, ex-midwives and former “family planning officials” who were all required to enforce the policy. She speaks with her own aunt, who in 1989 was forced to give up her infant daughter to be adopted by an American family. The film’s second half charts the concurrent rise in international adoptions of Chinese babies with the help of the researchers Brian and Longlan Stuy, a Utah couple with three daughters they adopted from China. Their efforts to trace the whereabouts of thousands of adoptees, many of whom were taken and sold against the will of their birth parents, reveal how the one-child policy helped enrich the Chinese government through a campaign of state-sponsored human trafficking.
Still other Chinese parents recall the painful experience of being forced to leave their own secondborn children for dead. In testimonies that evoke a hideous reversal of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, we hear of infants abandoned on tables in open markets, most of whom were not rescued, as their parents hoped they would be, and instead died from exposure. Girls were abandoned in far greater numbers than boys, one of the more damning signs of a Chinese culture that has always been ruthlessly patriarchal. (Among other things, the one-child policy and the practice of sex-selective abortions have contributed to the severe gender imbalance that now exists in China, where men greatly outnumber women.)
Sexist bias is as old as China itself and unlikely to disappear anytime soon, as some of the movie’s older male interviewees make clear with an unrepentant shrug. What’s particularly troubling in “One Child Nation” is the overwhelming sense of collective resignation toward the policy itself. The only subject who seems to express any regret is a former midwife who now devotes herself to helping infertile couples have kids, in hopes of atoning for the numerous abortions and sterilizations she performed over her lifetime.
But others calmly deny any sense of complicity or responsibility, noting that they had no choice but to obey a policy that some of them still view as right and necessary. You might be reminded of historic examples of ordinary people trying to absolve themselves of their participation in wartime atrocities, a connection subtly reinforced by some briefly seen footage of an enormous 2015 military parade through the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Like all the official propaganda we see, these images subliminally recast “One Child Nation” as a war movie, albeit one in which the war was waged by a nation against its own people.
Rating: R, for some disturbing content/images, and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 9 at Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles