Documentary Releases: One Child Nation (2019) - Reviewed

Chinese documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang is something of an outcast in her own country.  With her first documentary feature film Hooligan Sparrow, the filmmaker experienced a barrage of harassments and police intimidation from the Chinese government as well as her own family members being interrogated by national security agents.  In her newest film, the Amazon Studios produced One Child Nation which chronicles China’s controversial single child family policy which lasted from 1919 to 2015, history seems to have repeated itself with the picture all but completely censored and blocked from circulation in China. 

Endemic of the country’s fierce control over the flow of information in the media, the shortlist of contenders for Best Documentary in the 92nd Academy Awards were announced yet Chinese media intentionally overlooked One Child Nation and pretended the film didn’t exist.  Moreover, when it took home the Grand Jury prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, Chinese media declined to announce the winner.  After looking at the film firsthand, it is not hard to see why this powerfully open indictment of a longstanding national policy regarding the family unit touched the nerves of the government. 

Provocative, horrific and angering in equal measure, Wang and co-director Jialing Zhang’s graphic and disturbing investigation of years of media indoctrination, intimidation and the far more dire consequences arising within the policy’s effects is among the toughest watches of this year.  Wading through years of systemic propaganda, One Child Nation simultaneously holds photographs, posters and other forms of promotional media including songs and slogans under a microscope and thus presents a deeply troubling portrait of how the one child policy has destroyed the fabric of many families and even more lives of unborn children. 

The images of landfills littered with aborted fetuses are enough to shake you to your core, but soon that only pales in comparison to the stories of human trafficking and breakup of existing families through abductions.  Most frightening of all however is when Wang turns her cameras on her own family with her own mother heaping boundless praise upon the so-called ‘good’ the policy has served the Chinese family unit.  Stranger still, Wang uncovers sexist favoritism of the male son corroborated by testimonies from siblings who remarked the value of the female daughter was consistently downplayed from parent to child.

As a documentary film, One Child Nation is galvanizing and there were times when I wanted to close my eyes.  Visually, Wang and her cinematographer Yuanchen Liu capture the proceedings beautifully in 4K digital intermediate though a good chunk of the footage shown in the film stems from older televised sources on Chinese news media with some scenes looking like a VHS tape.  Aiding the grim documentary’s somber mood is an original score by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero, casting a dark shadow over the already bleak and upsetting picture unspooling. 

This is not an easy picture to recommend even to staunch cinephiles as it contains numerous images and scenes throughout that I cannot unsee.  And yet you have to respect the uphill battle fought by the filmmakers to give this story worldwide attention and the fact that it remains censored in its country of origin speaks volumes to the film’s importance in being seen.  One Child Nation presents a painful but necessary truth as well as a long gestating reckoning with the country’s still controversial policy waged by those who lived through it.  Not for the faint hearted but not to be missed!

--Andrew Kotwicki