Nanfu Wang

Nanfu Wang

“Everyone was a victim”

An interview with Nanfu Wang, director of “One Child Nation”

Winner of this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize, returning DOC10 filmmaker Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) fearlessly exposes China’s brutal enforcement of its one-child policy, and the devastating emotional toll it’s taken on Chinese families, including her own. Wang, a new mother herself, gently balances personal revelations with a searing indictment of her native country’s appalling efforts at population control, from widespread sterilizations to state-sponsored kidnappings. Hailed by Film Comment as one of Sundance’s best films, One Child Nation follows Wang as she returns to China in search of the truth—and atonement—for her people. Wang speaks about the risks of going back to make a film in China, finding visual ways to tell her story, and the pain of processing long buried secrets.

After “Hooligan Sparrow,” there was a huge risk in going back to make a film in China. What compelled you to take that risk? 

It was worth the risk because it would be uncomfortable for me not to keep making films in China after “Hooligan Sparrow.” I never considered I wouldn’t go back to China to make a film. But the question was how do I do it? It wouldn’t have been smart to go back right afterwards. So I waited two years after “Hooligan Sparrow,” and during those two years, I constantly considered and tried to evaluate if it was okay for me to go. Eventually, I decided after my son was born, I was going to visit my family, because they wanted to meet my son. The entire time I stayed in my village, because that was the safest place for me. And I could say that I was just visiting to introduce my son to my family. If they did anything to me, it would not look good for the government, because I wasn’t violating any laws. While I was there, I filmed with various family members, and the fact that there was no reaction that I could see, I thought maybe it’s okay. They could have threatened me, but they didn’t. Then I had received an invitation from the Shanghai Film Festival to screen my last film “I Am Another You.” My invitation was approved by the government, so I thought it was a good opportunity to shoot more of “One Child Nation.” I was much more careful than making “Hooligan Sparrow,” and what to do and what not to do. There were some moments that were nerve-wracking, but nothing serious.

For me, one of the most powerful images is of all the pictures of babies on that one midwife’s wall? Can you talk about her and that room?

This woman delivered me; she was a great friend of my grandmother’s, and I always knew her and she knew me well. So she was one of the first people I thought about interviewing. I didn’t expect much, and I learned a little bit about the village. And then I asked her about her past, and she told me matter-of-factly that she had performed some 2,000 abortions, and then she showed me the room with all the banners [pictures of babies]. Seeing all them at that moment, I felt how the audience feels. I was shocked. I suddenly had so many questions. I was totally in awe of her frankness. And how she dealt with the guilt. I think that moment would change the direction of the film. I had thought the film would be a story of perpetrators and victims, but at the moment, I had a lot of sympathy for everyone. I realized that everyone was a victim of the policy. 

One of the incredible things about that room is that it becomes such a powerful image. But I imagine it was a challenge to make a film about a “policy.” “Hooligan Sparrow” was likened to a verite thriller, but this is something very different. 

I like to challenge myself, to make something different from what I’ve done before. I contemplated for a long time how to make a film about a policy that is compelling and cinematic. It was always the biggest challenge. It’s such a complex massive topic and the scale is enormous. It affected millions of people, and this film didn’t have a central main character who goes through an arc. So I thought: how do you make it compelling? How do you cover the full scale of it, without making a historical doc? I was lucky, because the film’s visuals came from the characters. For instance, her collection of all the baby banners were visual, and then there was the artist, who had the fetus in the jar, and the woman who collected all the newspapers of missing children. And from the very beginning, we saw all the propaganda material, which I grew up with, and we had one person who had a huge collection of it. One day, he said, if China becomes a Democracy, he could open up a museum to one child policy.

What were the reactions of the people who you asked about the one child policy? One gets the feeling that they hadn’t talked or reflected on it, like you were opening up a long forgotten wound. 

The people outside of my family were surprisingly easy and willing to talk. They had some reservations, partially, but a lot of them didn’t think what they were talking about was wrong. They felt that this was how it was, and some of them were proud of what they did. But talking with my family was pretty uncomfortable for me, because, for example, my uncle who had abandoned his daughter, he hadn’t talked about it for two decades. For me to ask him to talk about it in front of the camera was very hard. There were a few times when I saw him, and thought today is the day, but I didn’t have the courage to speak to him. That was true with my aunt, too. And there’s one family member that I still don’t have the courage to ask. I still haven’t thought too much about why it was so difficult for me to ask them, but I guess it puts them in a very difficult position. It’s so painful for them to process.