There are few documentaries that possess the urgency of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang's riveting and unforgettable first-person documentary One Child Nation, winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and easily one of the year's best documentary features.
Wang begins One Child Nation with her own story, a relatively soft opening that has you falsely lulled into a sense of comfort that the 85-minute documentary to follow will be not much more than the latest testimonial doc about yet another misguided government policy gone awry.
Then, Wang lets loose.
Wang was born in 1995, China's "one-child law" was in full effect. It was the result, somewhat understandably, of China's growing concern about overpopulation and the impact said population was having on China's natural resources. To proactively address this concern, China enthusiastically ushered in its "one-child law" in 1979 that set a limit on the number of children that parents could have. While there were exceptions, most notably by the mid-80's when rural parents were allowed a second child if the first child was a daughter, it was the totalitarian, brutal enforcement of the law which is most notable and which has only begun to be revealed through the personal stories and slowly surfacing stories of trauma within the nation.
Enormous fines were implemented for those families that violated the policy, while One Child Nation vividly documents that forced sterilizations, abortions, and even abandonment of infants was rampant during this time that became as marked by its corruption as the policy itself.
The world has long known about the "one-child law," though One Child Nation reveals it on a level that is nothing short of staggering. From its initial phase-in accompanied by propagandistic songs, folk art, eerily "Up With People" stylized music and more until the law's end in 2015, One Child Nation powerfully, though perhaps a bit too cautiously, portrays the brutality of a nation and its people where collective welfare far transcended any concern for the individuals and the families involved.
One Child Nation captures testimonies that are both stunning in their transparency and heartbreaking in their revelations. Nanfu's own family confesses that had Nanfu's brother been born a female that she'd have been left at a local market where she'd have either been picked up or died. It's the way in which this testimony is shared, somewhat regretfully yet matter-of-factly, that makes it so incredibly powerful. There's another story, this one involving Nanfu's female cousin, that is the kind of simple, devastating tale you simply won't soon forget.
As someone who recently visited one of the U.S.'s immigration detention camps, I found myself perhaps most disturbed of all by an interview involving a former village chief tasked with enforcing the "one-child law" whose response to any potential regret is essentially "What was I to do? It was policy."
On the flip side, there's one woman who now recognizes the error of her ways. Having often performed 20 sterilizations per day, she's since devoted herself, at as little cost as possible, to helping infertile couples conceive. It's her way, she reckons, of trying to make amends for her actions yet it's an amends you can just hear in her voice that she knows she'll never be able to fully make.
There's more. There's so much more contained within One Child Nation. The corruption alone is absolutely staggering, from the human trafficking that saved lives yet at great cost to international adopts that often concealed dark truths. At a relatively slight 85-minutes in running length, One Child Nation captures it all and does so in such a way that it makes this absolutely one of the year's best and most memorable doc experiences.
Currently on a limited arthouse run with Amazon Studios, One Child Nation is a difficult to see "must see" documentary.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic