Growing up in a remote village in Jiangxi Province, China, Peabody award-winning filmmaker Nanfu Wang hadn’t given much thought to China’s “one-child” policy.
It wasn’t until Wang was pregnant with her first child that she began to uncover the secret history and brutality of a decades-long social experiment in her homeland.
The controversial population-control policy is said to have prevented more than 500 million births between 1970 and 2015, when it was ended, and was aimed at lifting China out of poverty and firmly launching the nation into prosperity.
Effective from January 2016, the birth planning policy became a universal two-child policy that allowed each couple to have two children.
Nearly 40 years after China enacted the policy, One Child Nation follows the first-time mother and Hooligan Sparrow filmmaker as she travels to her homeland to expose the untold history of the policy while revealing horrifying stories involving myriad instances of kidnapping, forced sterilization, infanticide, induced late-term abortions and child abandonment.
Directed by Wang and Jialing Zhang, the 85-minute One Child Nation utilizes intimate interviews with Communist party officials, journalists, activists, artists, Wang’s family members and American adoptee families to bring to light the consequences of one of the world’s largest social experiments.
“Every person I talked to answered some of my questions but also raised more questions,” says Wang, now based in New York City. “What they revealed shaped my perspective in a different way and propelled me to find out more. Each story, I would say, either challenged or reshaped my perspective of the one-child policy.”
As Wang tells it, the biggest challenge over the two-year production period – the final shoot culminated in October 2018 – was in piecing together a comprehensive storyline that underscored a policy that impacted millions of Chinese lives over a 36-year period.
“How do we cover this massive policy and show the consequences, yet not make it a survey film where we’d interview a million people?” she mused. “We had to be very selective of who to film and who to include in the film.”
One Child Nation is seen through equal parts of a personal and political lens, with Wang’s mother, grandfather and uncle appearing on camera alongside government officials and midwives. In the edit bay, the question then became how to integrate the two levels of stories, both personal and national, into one similar story.
The solution was to edit One Child Nation, Wang explains, in a way that every character has their own universe; each person, within their own story, has a story arch.
The editing process is one that Wang finds difficult to separate from directing, as evidenced by her previous two documentary films: Hooligan Sparrow (2016) and I Am Another You (2017).
“It’s hard for me to separate the two because they’ve been so personal – I was part of [each] film and I’ve found it to be efficient,” she says. “I can shoot and edit at the same time, and each time that I edit it reconfirms the way I see the story, so I’m constantly adjusting what the story really is – not just what it was in my head, but what the footage was telling me the story was.”
While multiple cameramen – namely cinematographer Yuanchen Liu – were on the ground in China to shoot One Child Nation, Wang admits that filming alone is her preferred method of choice as the one-on-one approach provides a level of intimacy with her subjects.
“A lot of my films are about my perspective – how I see the world – and sometimes it’s about how that perspective has shifted over time or was triggered by something,” Wang explains. “Because they’re about my perspective, I’ve found that sometimes having a cinematographer filming things, they don’t necessarily see the things that I see and by filming [alone] it allows me the intimacy that I want with the characters and it also allows me to really convey my perspective through the lens.”
That approach, the acclaimed filmmaker says, determines the editing of her films. “If I’m shooting for five days, on the way back on the plane, I’ll sometimes get so excited that I’ll start editing because I have such a strong desire to see if the idea in my head will work.”
With the filming commencing in 2017 and ending in October 2018, the directing team submitted a 15-minute sample to executives at ‘Independent Lens’, the long-standing documentary strand at PBS, for consideration. The American pubcaster would eventually board the project months later following “continuous conversation”, and ‘Independent Lens’ executive producer Lois Vossen also serves as exec producer on the film.
Wang and Zhiang secured funding from a combination of broadcasters, and grants from Sundance, Chicken & Egg, Fork Films, IDA, the inaugural Enterprise Fund, as well as a grant and investment from the Chicago Media Project.
The film was also supported by WDR and ARTE, International Documentary Association Enterprise Documentary Fund, BBC Storyville, Fork Films, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program with DFP, SVT Sveriges Television, VGTV, EO, and DR Danish Broadcasting Corporation.
London-based film sales agent and theatrical distributor Dogwoof, meanwhile, represents One Child Nation‘s international rights, excluding North America and television rights in Scandinavia, the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
The film is produced by Wang and Zhang; Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements and Carolyn Hepburn of Motto Pictures; and Christoph Jörg of Pumpernickel Films. Executive producers on the film are Ken Pelletier of the Chicago Media Project; Sally Jo Fifer of ITVS; and Lois Vossen of PBS ‘Independent Lens’.
The independent Chinese filmmaker is already working on her fourth film and wants to continue challenging herself to complete films with different subject matter or in a dissimilar form.
“I want each of my films to be different and to have some sort of challenge that I haven’t dealt with before.”
Wang has pitched the project at the 2018 IDFA Forum. “The Untitled Cuba Project” is expected to tell the story of a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Cuban civil rights activist who was killed under suspicious circumstances and his daughter’s fight to expose the truth of his death.
The project has begun production with Lori Cheatle for Hard Working Movies attached.
“It’s a completely different country and a new language and I’m very excited about it,” Wang comments.
- One Child Nation next screens at Sundance today (Jan. 28) at 3 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 7 in Park City, Utah. For further screening information, click here.