Taking risks is nothing new for Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang. Her previous documentary I Am Another You, which was a SXSW Jury Award-winner and aired on Independent Lens, involved her having to live on the streets with the homeless subject of her film, and prior to that she became a target of the Chinese government when telling the powerful story of political activists for her film Hooligan Sparrow–which required Wang to have to smuggle footage out of China. That film is a miracle for even getting made, yet alone turning out to be such a gripping work. And her latest film, One Child Nation, involved some similar finagling, risk-taking, dodging and weaving to get made, as she approached a controversial, and even horrific, story with humanity and poignancy.
One Child Nation revisits China’s one-child policy, the extreme population control measure that made it illegal for couples to have more than one child. While the policy may have ended in 2015, the process of dealing with the trauma of its brutal enforcement is very much ongoing.
“What eventually emerges is a peerless portrait of collective trauma,” wrote David Fear in Rolling Stone of the film. “A devastating look at how this law not only sociologically gutted a country but made everyone complicit in the crime.”
The film made the Academy Award feature documentary shortlist, and while it wasn’t ultimately a finalist, the impact is unquestioned.
I spoke with Nanfu Wang and her co-director Jialing Zhang by phone just before the Oscar nominations were announced. We talked about what the Oscars mean in China, how the two filmmakers worked in tandem to keep the film going while protecting Nanfu’s safety, how they got people to talk about such a painful topic, and how her family watches (or doesn’t) films.
Why did you make One Child Nation?
Nanfu Wang: In early 2016, I met for coffee with one of our producers, Christoph Jorg, and he asked me what I thought of the one-child policy as a person who grew up under it. We had ongoing conversations about making a film on the subject, but it wasn’t until I became pregnant that the idea of exploring the meaning of the policy in a film became stuck in my mind. I moved away from China several years ago and didn’t have to worry about getting government approval to have a child. Having my first child made me think about what it would have been like for the state to control such an essential aspect of my humanity, and I wanted to explore my questions about that in the film.
When it was time for production to start, it was unclear whether it would be safe for me to go back to China because my previous film, Hooligan Sparrow, was politically sensitive. I reached out to my friend Jialing Zhang, a great filmmaker whom I met in grad school, to see if she would be interested in co-directing with me. She was the perfect collaborator for this project. Her doggedness and sensitivity were crucial to the process of finding and interviewing people affected by the policy. Like me, she was born in the 1980s under the one-child policy and only left China for school as an adult. We shared a lot in common, including the same sense of responsibility to tell this story.
As soon as conversations with interview subjects began, it became clear that the policy was intensely traumatic for everyone we spoke with. Eventually, we realized that the story needed to include the voices of people who carried out the policy. We needed to find out what motivated them, how they felt in retrospect about what they did.
I think we expected the film to be a story of victims and perpetrators, but when we started speaking with family planning officials, it just became clear how complex and fraught the story of the policy really is.
Who do you hope your film impacts the most or that this story reaches?
We hope this film reaches audiences everywhere, including and especially Chinese audiences, to fill in the gaps of the official history of the one-child policy – hopefully it will show what the policy really meant for the people who lived it.
Our goal was to make a film that in 50 or 100 years will survive as a reliable account of what really happened during the one-child policy. It can serve as a rebuttal to the official narrative, which in China already is pure propaganda. Even outside of China, many people we’ve spoken with have told us how surprised they were by the details of the film, which shows how effective the propaganda promoting the policy truly has been.
Whether or not you get the Oscar nomination [this chat happened a few days before the Oscar announcement], and making the Shortlist is an honor, I was wondering how such a high profile award, the Oscars, is viewed in China? Would getting a nomination have any effect on how the Chinese government views the film and you?
Oscars are very popular in China—it’s live-streamed, the nominations and then the show. So that is the one award the Chinese government is already concerned about or paying attention to. The other awards, most of the time it doesn’t reach the general Chinese public. But the Oscars everyone [there] pays attention to. When the Oscar shortlist for docs was announced, there were waves of social media discussion and comments, people asking about the film. If the film was nominated, I would definitely expect there would be a lot more people in China wanting to see the film, or start searching for the film, getting to know more about it. We can also expect tighter censorship around the film from the government.
On that topic, is there any way for anyone in China to see your film, even if “underground” or bootlegged?
There were pirated versions in China so there were a lot of people who saw it. By a lot I mean probably 20,000 people, because that’s the number we could see from the pirated websites that showed the amount of times that it had been downloaded. But very soon the Chinese government took down those links and it’s getting more and more difficult for people to find the film. But in that short window the film was available through pirating.
Jialing: And people are also using VPN to watch it from Western streaming sites. Even though it’s unstable.
Nanfu: We know people will watch via VPN in China when my films are available on the PBS website. Like when my older film Hooligan Sparrow was broadcast and streamed on POV [people in China] pirated the PBS version.
Jialing: And we don’t encourage pirating! [laughs] But due to the tight censorship in China it actually helped us reach more audiences there.
Like you can’t tell people to do it, but…
There must have been a lot of challenges, logistically and emotionally, in making this film. Can you talk about those?
Nanfu: One of the main challenges I faced when we began the project was that it was unclear whether it would be safe for me to go back to China because Hooligan Sparrow was politically sensitive. I decided to reach out to Jialing to see if she would be interested in co-directing with me, as mentioned above.
During the production, the challenge we faced was to film under the radar of the Chinese government. Whenever I traveled back to China to film, I tried to avoid taking public transportation or staying at hotels to avoid surveillance. Jialing, our producers and I made detailed emergency plans in case anything happened.
The biggest challenge we faced during post-production was how to integrate all the different elements involved in the film. The topic of the one-child policy and its consequences are massive and complex. We went through a lot of trial and error to decide which characters to include and how to transit from my personal and family story to a larger national and international story. I think eventually, the guideline for me to edit and try to find balance was to find how their story made me feel, how their story shaped my perspective – what happened within myself after I learned their stories.
So Jialing, can you talk more about your role, and was there ever a time you were worried about Nanfu’s whereabouts?
Jialing: Yeah, at the beginning when Nanfu wasn’t sure if she could travel back to China, I did more of the travel and the research in China. Whenever I met someone or called someone, I tried not to mention Nanfu’s name on the phone, because we were never sure to what extent we may be monitored by the authorities, if her name would trigger some kind of action. When I reached out to some activists, if they heard the name “Nanfu Wang,” it could jeopardize the film. So we could’ve ended up not making the film at all.
After Nanfu went back to China for the Chinese New Year, that was the first time she traveled back to China for the Spring Festival, in 2018, and no authorities came to her house to question her. After that she took more trips to China. And we decided not to travel together because we tried to reduce the crew to a minimum number to not draw unwanted attention. And then when she traveled I monitored her by GPS. We had schedules, I’d keep track of her almost every hour in knowing who she’s going to meet and how long she might spend time. We avoided using China-developed social media apps or emails. I kept track of her itinerary in China so in case anything unusual happened, I’d be alerted and prepared, have our producer in the US ready. We made all kinds of emergency plans.
Because we wanted to finish the film, we tried to avoid unwanted troubles with the authorities. We took every precaution. Even booking cars. We had to book cars in different areas, because otherwise if anything happened the government can just go to the driver and ask for information.
During her shoot in China to film ex-human trafficker Duan Yueneng, she needed to get on a train with him to film his previous baby-transporting route. In China, buying a train ticket requires a real ID. Not long after she boarded the train, a railway police [officer] came to question her. Then he left. But soon he came back and sat right next to her. She couldn’t film and wasn’t sure if more police would come and take her away. When the train pulled up to the next station, she hurried to the door and jumped off the train. It was midnight at a remote train station in the middle of nowhere. She jumped on the first motorcycle taxi she could get but wasn’t sure if she was being followed.
I was in Massachusetts and during the whole time I tried to help coordinate her “escape” by suggesting locations to go and trying to reach local drivers. One lucky thing was that we had expected that situation and had arranged a driver to drive along the railway ready to pick her up any time. After about half an hour on the motorcycle running from places to places, Nanfu finally found a hotel where she could use the lobby to wait for the driver. During her wait, we discussed hiding footage in the bathroom. Luckily the driver arrived in no time.
We still don’t know why the police would come sit next to her on the train. Perhaps it was just that her camera was too obvious, or because her ticket information triggered alert in the government’s high-tech surveillance systems used to track hotel stays, train and plane trips or internet communication. But in China you never know what’s going to happen, and we always prepare for the worst.
So Nanfu you were by yourself, or with a camera person?
It depends… some trips it was just me. Depended on the situation. For example, in my village, the midwife, the village chief, or in Hong Kong, the journalist, those places we felt it safer to try to have as few people as possible. Those were just myself. And then some other places, other shoots, I had a camera person with me — for example, the artist, when we were there, because Jialing had already set up [something] to go to that place, we felt it was relatively safe because there was no trace of communication between me and the artist. Everything was kept very secretive.
Whenever we shot in the US, in Utah, plus in some other states where there were adoptive families (who did not end up in the film), that was me, Jialing and the camera person together.
How did you get everyone’s trust and get them to talk to you about this painful and sensitive subject?
We filmed a wide-range of characters from my own family to an artist, journalist, ex-human trafficker, midwife, and government officials who carried out the policy.
We approached our subjects by saying that we wanted to learn the history of the one-child policy and wanted to hear what they’ve witnessed. Some of them didn’t immediately agree to the filming, and it took weeks of conversation to gain their trust before they eventually agreed to be filmed.
Nanfu, how did having had a baby change this conversation especially with your family, about this topic?
My worldview shifted when I became pregnant. I noticed how my priorities changed, or it was always important to me to make my child’s life safe, both when I was pregnant and after he was born. Then asking my mom how it was for her when she was pregnant with me, and hearing the stories of violence and forced abortions–that really affected me, because I couldn’t imagine how women lived their lives in that period, lived every day under fear, not knowing whether they could protect themselves or their child. That was really personal.
When I was pregnant and doing interviews and filming, or when my son was born, taking him to some of the locations, really changed the dynamics of the interviews, conversations, and how people would react. That included my own family and everyone outside of my family, because when I was really pregnant, eight months, and the person who sat across the camera from me was talking about forced abortions or similar things, there was an unspoken understanding and empathy between us that would not have happened if I was not someone who had a child, who was a mom.
I know you’ve said your mother, even after seeing the film and really liking it, still believes one-child policy was necessary. Has anyone in your family outside of your mom seen the film and if so what did they think?
Nanfu: My brother did see it, while my uncle and grandfather did not. Because they are people who in their whole lives have not watched a film. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. They’ve never been to a movie theater. They would never watch a film, my uncle and my grandpa. So I didn’t show them because I didn’t know how they would even understand it.
Yeah, I think you mention that a bit in the documentary, too, that they don’t watch films. It’s hard to even imagine. Can you explain to them what you do at least, as a filmmaker?
[laughs] It took a long time. When I came here [to the U.S.] and told them I was going to pursue documentary as a career, there were a lot of questions around “what is documentary?” It was really hard to explain. I feel like my mom now, because she’s been here and saw the film, had more understanding of what I do and what documentary is. But even today she’ll ask me, “Where are you traveling to?” I’ll say, “I’m going to a festival, to show a film” and tell her I’m doing interviews for it. She’ll say, “You’re still doing interviews? Didn’t they ask you ten months ago? Why are you still talking about it?” [laughs]
Same with editing — every time, for over a year, my mom would call me to ask what I’m doing. “Editing.” “You’re still editing?!”
Have you tried to show them a snippet from a movie on your phone or anything?
When my mom came to visit, around the time I was still editing One Child Nation, I would show her the midwife scene, really rough edits of that, or of the village chief, or of herself, and she was fascinated–because these are people she knew, and seeing them on screen made her so excited.
Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
Jialing: My favorite scene is the midwife in Wang’s home village talking about her involvement with the family planning officials with regret. She is a very complex character, who estimates she performed over 50,000 abortions and sterilizations over 25 years. She remembers those days with shame. At the time, she believed that her duty to country and party required her to do this, but her actions were at odds with her Buddhist belief that killing is wrong. The ‘good of the country’ required her to sacrifice the values she holds dear to her heart.
Haunted by her guilt, Yuan eventually decided to exclusively treat infertility after a 108-year-old monk told her that each baby she helps to come into this world would offset 100 that she killed. Now the walls of her home are crowded with gratitude flags from new parents. On each flag there is a photo of a baby she helped the couple conceive.
Nanfu: I also love the midwife scene, and a second favorite is when the artist Peng Wang showed his work to us. Seeing the fetuses in the jar and in the photographs was emotional and powerful. It’s also the objective evidence of what happened during the one-child policy.
Do you have any updates on some of the people featured in One Child Nation that you can share?
Shuangjie Zeng (the younger twin in China) now works as a kindergarten teacher. She is learning English and hoping to communicate with her twin sister better. They don’t have any plans to meet yet.
Peng Wang: (the artist)’s studio is facing demolition by the government. He is fighting in court to stop it.
Brian and Longlan Stuy continue to help adoptive families connect with the birth families.
Nanfu’s mother and brother attended the film’s premiere at Sundance and watched the film there. They were both very proud of Nanfu. Nanfu’s mother, however, still believes that the one-child policy was necessary after watching the film.
You’ve talked about some of your experiences and challenges filming this and Hooligan Sparrow in China. Do you think you could go back there to China to make a documentary again or is it really hard to imagine given all those constraints?
I think it’s hard to predict. Because when Hooligan Sparrow was out, I also thought at that time I’d never be able to go back. And then when I did I Am Another You, who knew that the Chinese government would invite me to come back to show that film in China. They rolled out the red carpet. I was interviewed by state media. So it’s really surprising, sometimes you think it’ll never happen. I don’t plan to go back to China to make another film there but I do hope, I am hopeful that maybe in five years or after [I do] another movie that’s not about China, that I would be able to go back again.
Speaking of that, can you tell us anything about what you may want to work on next? For either of you.
Jialing: I’m doing research for a project in Africa.
Nanfu: I’m making a documentary series in the United States. And a feature documentary in Cuba. [link?] So that’s the two projects I’ll be focused on for the next couple of years.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Nanfu: Rashomon, Black Sun (by Gary Tarn).
Jialing: Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence.
Nanfu Wang TED Talk