In Nanfu Wang’s chilling new documentary, “One Child Nation,” a midwife seeks absolution for women she forcibly sterilized and babies she killed during a draconian family planning program that began in China decades ago to prevent overpopulation and famine.
The “one-child policy” was testament to the enveloping propaganda and omniscient reach of the communist state to reshape cities, provinces and villages. Stretching from 1979 until 2015, the policy, which led to abandoned infants, separated siblings and fetuses scattered in garbage dumps, was billed as a war to save the country. It turned out, as the film grimly states, to be a nation’s war against its people.
Wang and co-director Lynn Zhang convey not only the emotional and psychological devastation done to women, but the ghosts and self-recriminations of family planning doctors, midwives and obsequious local officials who carried out the law. “One Child Nation” which Amazon Studios released Aug. 9, is less a story of blame than it is a rebuke to an inhumane moment in history that brought sacrifice and bewildering loss as China’s population approached 1 billion.
“I was the executioner,” a midwife, who had performed thousands of sterilizations and abortions, including on women who were tied-up and dragged to her, told the filmmakers. “I counted this out of guilt because I aborted and killed many babies. Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it ... I want to atone for my sins.”
That harrowing confession reverberates through Wang’s latest work to examine the forbidding side of China’s pervasive power over its citizens. One must succumb or risk ruin and imprisonment. Her first feature documentary, “Hooligan Sparrow,” a tale of female activists protesting sex offenders, was shortlisted for an Academy Award. “One Child Nation” is an equally troubling study of women’s rights violations in a patriarchal society that prefers sons over daughters. It won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at this year’s Sundance festival.
Born and raised in China’s Jiangxi Province, Wang, who had to confront her own family history, said in a phone interview from New York that the film’s intent is not to depict midwives and doctors “as evil people but to see them with empathy. It’s easy to paint a black and white picture to dramatize and make extreme the evil character or the hero character, but, in reality, life is much more complex than that. What causes them to do the things they did? That’s what we wanted to explore.”
That question is central to China’s top-down system of control and indoctrination, which is as prevalent today as it was in the late 1970s. The nation’s leadership is suppressing social media and silencing rights activists as it seeks to contain growing unrest in Hong Kong, battles President Trump’s escalating trade tariffs, and modernizes its economy. In a reverse of the past, China, worried it now won’t have enough young people to support a growing elderly population, has called for a two-child policy. It is promoting it with skits, ballads and patriotic banners.
Wang was steeped in similar brainwashing when she was a girl singing nationalist songs — “insubordination is not tolerated” — and promoting the one-child policy. China feared overpopulation would trigger famine reminiscent of the one that began in 1959 and killed an estimated 36 million people. One-child slogans were painted on village walls. Babies were abandoned in markets and alleys; women who refused sterilization were fined and had their homes demolished.
The policy had exceptions, including allowing families in rural regions to have a second child five years after their first. That’s when Wang’s brother, Zhihao, was born. But she thought his arrival betrayed the country’s goals.
“I remembered the shame and embarrassment I had throughout my childhood and teenage life. I didn’t want people to know I had a younger brother,” said Wang. “Why would I feel this shame? I realized that it was all the messages and culture promoting that one-child was the best way and that everyone whose family had more than one child was selfish and backward and taking up resources.”
Wang studied at Shanghai University and later enrolled in New York University’s documentary program. Her films — searing excavations of the past with a fierce gaze on the present — mix Western sensibilities with an intricate understanding of Chinese culture and the communist leadership that has ruled the country since 1949.
“I would really love to be optimistic and think that social media has allowed people a window to get outside information, but I’m getting more and more pessimistic,” Wang said of China’s repression of free speech and banning of Twitter and many websites. “The society has been even more closed. As technology grows, censorship grows.”
“One Child Nation” sketches names and faces into a disturbing portrait of a system — an intimate glimpse at lives forever changed. It is a distressing unraveling of decades, a blur of children lost against a state where soldiers parade in precision and secrets can be undone by village allegiances and whispers.
As a new mother, Wang said she was perplexed that such a strict policy of social engineering could take hold. She journeyed back to her rural village, where wives and husbands, including her uncle, had abandoned babies and where faces, now much older, carried glimmers of denial, guilt and complicity. But many, like her mother, said the one-child program saved China from starvation and collapse.
“Either we looked the other way or we didn’t pay attention,” said Wang. “I was questioning everything I learned in [my childhood]. There were a lot of moments of being shocked.”
One set of photographs from long ago was nightmarish. Taken by artist Peng Wang, the images show yellow bags of fetuses scattered over hillsides and garbage heaps. The artist speaks in the soft brokenness of a man haunted. So do the siblings of children kidnapped by human traffickers and state orphanages in a lucrative network that put babies up for U.S. couples and other Westerners to adopt. Families were diminished, identities were lost, and a woman’s right to her body was subservient to the state.
Baby girls were the most abandoned. Boys carried the family’s name for the next generation. Nanfu Wang learned this lesson early. Her grandfather never took a picture of her. Her parents so much wanted their first born to be a son that they had settled on a name. “Nanfu” means “man pillar.” Her brother came years later. After her father died, she was forced to quit school and work to support the family; the money and attention went to her brother. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he reflects on the advantages he was given and those she was denied.
“We have a good relationship,” said Wang. “But it was at that moment that he explicitly shared his guilt. That was really moving because, in everyday life, we would not talk about that. Both of us cried.”