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Patt Morrison asks: 'Misconception' director Jessica Yu

Patt Morrison asks: 'Misconception' director Jessica Yu
Director Jessica Yu. (Los Angeles Times)

It may not be that the Earth has too little water, too little land or too little food; the overpopulation argument posits that the problem is too many people for the Earth to sustain. From the 1960s, books like "The Population Bomb" and zero population growth organizations sprang up and took hold alongside a new environmental awareness. But – especially after China's one-child experiment – population became a no-go topic for most leaders.  Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu's new documentary, "Misconception," found that population is not so simple as 1 + 1 equals too many.

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You have done films about resources before, about water — what got your attention on population?

Well, every Q & A after screenings of the film about water, which is called "Last Call at the Oasis," someone would raise their hand and say, Well, why are we talking about conservation when we're not doing anything about population? You know, it doesn't matter if we just keep growing.

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So there was a kind of panic about, are there just too many of us? And so it was almost like people were asking us to look into the idea of population as a subject for a film. We went into it with all the assumptions that we ended up addressing in the film. It wasn't like we were in the know and decided to make the film – it was more like we had these questions that we wanted answered.

What we wanted to do was find out what is actually happening in terms of absolute growth, and what does that mean? And the first person we ended up researching was Hans Rosling, who's kind of a guru of statistics, and he really looks at data and discussed numbers and what's behind them.

So from him, we learned that overpopulation is not a thing. We have population growth but the overall rate of growth is actually slowed. It's a different problem in different places.

There's so many ways to take a film about population growth. How did you choose the way you ended up doing it?

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I think we were starting to get overwhelmed by the numbers and I think, you know, numbers can be so mesmerizing, and we realized that looking at the human consequences of policy decisions or attitudes -- that was kind of a way to see what's really going on and how these forces are being shaped.

So we ended looking for these human stories that illustrated the consequences on the ground or what the philosophical differences are. So we have a kind of a triptych in the film. There's three different stories, three very different situations, and they look at the issue through different lenses.

The first story begins in China where the one-child policy may have had some short-term success but in the long term,  it means there are a lot more men than there are women. This is a story of a man approaching 30 whose parents are putting on the heat.

What's interesting about Bao, the man there, is that like a lot of single children he's been raised in a kind of bubble where he's like the prince of the family. So the expectation is very high of what kind of partner he should have. He has all these romantic ideas but when push comes to shove, there's a point where his parents are just like, Find somebody. But given the imbalance there and the fact that modern Chinese women have more expectations for their lives, he's not much of a catch.

The one-child policy was ended but that doesn't solve the issue. As Hans Rosling would say, there's a braking distance of a generation. So just because you say, now it's OK for most families to have two children, those instant adults are not going to be created.

The second of the three people you study is a Canadian woman who's very religious, who had an abortion herself and is clearly full of remorse, because she's been lobbying the United Nations to put an end to some practices like abortion.

Denise's story is I think the most controversial of the three. And her story is about the effect of religion and cultural factors in the landscape. And she represents an army on the ground of activists who equate family planning with abortion, and so that is really the battle as they see it.

And I think it's a story that makes people uncomfortable because Denise is absolutely who she is. She goes to the UN and she sets up these meetings and she has these little plastic fetuses of different colors that she gives to the delegates as she sees the color being appropriate to where they're from. And this is just who she is.

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So I think that there's a way in her story you can think, I'm not taking her seriously, she's kind of outrageous in the way she gets attention. I think there's a lesson in seeing that she is able to represent her side in a way that I don't think can be discounted.

What are her views about overpopulation?

I think she believes that God never gives us more than we can handle, and I think that there's a feeling that there's a conspiracy, say, against countries in Africa; she calls them like the population controllers that want to stop women from having babies. I think she would say women need support, poverty should eradicated, but babies are a gift and the more you have, the better.

I want to talk about some issues that have emerged lately about population. For example, we don't look at raw numbers any more. We look at the population, and then look at how much that child born into that society consumes. The child born in the United States may consume many times more in terms of resources than the child born into a family of 10 children in Africa.

What you just mentioned is so important and it's not something, though, that I think has that has penetrated as deeply as we might expect. You know that if we have zero population growth, that would not matter for our future if everyone were to consume the way that the average American family consumes. That message is starting to get across, the kind of things that we learned about looking beyond the numbers, like the fact that women tend to have large numbers of children where you have high infant mortality. So in countries where infant mortality drops then you see fertility rates drop as well.

We know these things intuitively, that people given economic opportunities, health care, things like that, then healthier families, there's more security in having smaller numbers.  But again, it's something that gets eclipsed when we see just the big numbers in headlines.

Your third figure is a woman in Uganda, a journalist who looks to the plight of unwanted children.

The subject in the third story is Gladys Kalibbala. She's a journalist and a Ugandan woman who has intervened in a way that gives her unique perspective on what it's like for someone to be born into a situation where there were not planned for.

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What happens, a lot of these kids end up on the street. They might be sent out to work as child laborers in one form or another. There's a lot of exploitation. And also she gets very deeply involved in the children's lives.

There are some docs that make you think, Oh my God, I have to go out and do something about this. This is not one of them. Is that deliberate?

I think so. We researched for about 18 months and I think we were just encountering so many different facets to the issue and that the elements of the problem were so different in different cultures, so I think if there is a message, it's just the idea of not taking the number, the absolute number of population, how many we are, and seeing that as the problem.  Any idea that if we just control the number that we'll fix the problem, that falsehood I think is what the film is trying to lay to rest.

There was an interesting contrast with Russia and India. In the 1970s, there were population groups in India that encouraged men to have vasectomies after two or three children, and they would give them some money and a radio. Now it's women being urged to get sterilized and they say, Here's a car – and a two-seater car, too.

When we found that in India and in Russia, there were examples of automobiles being used as incentives either to have fewer children or to have more children. In India, if you undergo, you know, sterilization procedures, you get the operation, then there's certain incentives. You can get a jug of cooking oil; you get a radio or something, and a chance to win a car.

The car there, though, is a Nano, which is basically like a two-seater car. Whereas there are spots in Russia where the fertility rate is so low they're trying to get people to have more babies. So if you have a child, you get gifts from the government. And they announced in this one particular area that anybody who has five children would automatically get a car. But there, the car that's given away is an SUV!

One of the points in the segment about Russia is the motto, "Skip work, have sex," because Vladimir Putin believes "Either we will be many, or we won't be any."

They do sponsor a day where young people are encouraged to stay home and make babies.

The takeaway to this, especially after watching Hans Rosling -- he seems to be counseling, Don't panic, but don't relax.

That's right. I think what he's saying is also the idea that it's more about rolling up your sleeves and dealing with the things we always should be dealing with, which is access to education, eradication of poverty, it's health issues, it's women's rights.

These are the less sexy things than, Oh my God, we're going over the cliff with numbers.

Did you think or feel any differently after making this?

Oh, definitely. Then again, I think that when you make a film about a resource like water, there is a feeling that just the limits, the patterns of human consumption just seem like we are heading off a cliff. And looking at this, I think it made me feel like there are solutions, there are things we know will work.

In the film, you can see the downside of sort of heavy-handed government intervention, you see how religious bias can be something that makes the politics of women's access to reproductive health very, very difficult, and then you see the kind of work that the third story, Gladys Kalibbala in Uganda. She is rolling up her sleeves, she's very practical, she's in there trying to help these kids.

The conversations after screenings of this film have been very animated. I think it's something that demonstrated to me how the subject actually in a lot of ways has been taboo, talking about the idea of too many people.

The third rail of political discussion.

So having everybody there and having these stories sort of butting up against each other, I think it sparked a conversation that's been the most gratifying reaction for me personally.

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