BIFF Review: One Child Nation

“We were fighting a war on population.”

“I was following orders from the Party.”

“It was policy. Policy is policy.”

“What choice did I have?”

China’s controversial one-child policy officially lasted from 1979 until 2015. In that time, an estimated 400 million births were prevented. As birth rates decline throughout developed nations without government interference (or indeed, despite government efforts to promote more children), it is easy to imagine the Chinese government providing access to birth control, a system of incentives and floods of propaganda to promote their policy. To a large extent that is exactly what happened.  One Child Nation shows how much further they were willing to go.

Spurred by the birth of her own son, director Nanfu Wang tells a deeply personal story, interviewing family and neighbors from the village where she was born. There is enormous complexity in those people’s attitudes, in one moment saying how strict and cruel the enforcement of the one-child policy was, and in the next breath saying that they really did like the policy, though. In conversations with an uncle and an aunt, both of whom abandoned infant daughters in the late 1980s, both claim that they had “no choice,” but to leave a daughter outside to die or give her to a trafficker. The enforcement of this policy, the incentives, and punishments created a generation of babies – mostly girls – that were seen as either something to be sold for a bit of extra spending money or simply trash to be disposed of.

The cruelty Wang uncovers through her interviews is, in turn, heartbreaking, infuriating, and deeply unsettling. A handful of filmgoers walked out early on, and I needed to take a long walk once the credits rolled. We normally hear of these atrocities being unleashed in cases of ethnic conflict or occupied peoples under brutal dictators. This was perpetrated by the national government on a nation of a billion people.

The film is often interspersed with talk of propaganda. Officials claim it was their first choice for noncompliant families. Many people interviewed recite the lines almost verbatim. The posters and TV specials and performances are everywhere. The style of the propaganda was interesting, however, for how ham-fisted it appeared. The complete lack of subtlety in a quartet of brightly-dressed middle-aged women chanting slogans like, “One child is the perfect number!” or, “If you have two children, officials will find out and you will be punished!” would be comical if it weren’t so effective. It is a far cry from Twitter bots and Cambridge Analytica.

Image courtesy of BIFF

One Child Nation is a deeply affecting documentary that exposes the atrocities of China’s one-child policy to a wider audience. As the propaganda changes to promote two-child families, in some cases, the old messages, painted on walls, simply painted over a “one” with a “two.” The filmmakers are attempting to capture the history of this period before those who created it can erase it from the collective memory.

Film Information

  • Director: Wang Nanfu, Zhang Jialing
  • Producer: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang, Julie Goldman, Christoph Jorg, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn
  • Country: China/United States
  • Run Time: 89 minutes

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