In a moment where once-settled ideas of life and liberty no longer seem settled at all, the release of a movie like One Child Nation — this year’s winner of the Documentary Grand Prize at Sundance — feels more than timely.
The parallels are hard to ignore, even if what Nanfu Wang’s film addresses is in many ways a photo-negative of current-day America: From approximately 1979 to 2015, the Chinese government enforced a strict limit of one child per family, resulting in an epidemic not just of late-term abortions and infanticides but in generations of families (and their abandoned babies, if they survived) whose lives were radically altered by the loss.
It’s the birth of her own first child that brings Wang back from New York City to her hometown in Jiangxi Province as the movie opens; with her infant son frequently in tow, she reaches out to local acquaintances and the relatives she grew up with to find out exactly what that policy meant for each of them in their small rural village.
The answers, more often than not, are alternately horrifying and heartbreaking: officials compelled by law to destroy homes and hold distraught, terrified women against their will; midwives who kept quiet tallies of all the babies they took from expectant mothers through sterilizations, executions, and forced abortions; little girls shunted aside — or killed outright — for more desirable boys.
As Wang (Hooligan Sparrow) eventually reveals, she was one of those girls: the older sibling in a rare two-child family who was forced to quit primary school when her father died young in order to prioritize the education of her favored baby brother (who also gets screen time, along with her mother and grandparents).
With her co-director Jialing Zhang, Wang offers a broad overview of the policy’s justifications (China’s population boom in the late ‘70s was considered unprecedented and, according to the government, unsustainable), and the iron grip that state propaganda held on its people.
The pair finds telling detail in more individual stories, too, like the artist who made it a mission to memorialize the tiny bodies he found discarded in public landfills, the Utah couple who spent years tracing the deliberately obscured histories of their adopted Chinese daughters, and an extended family accused of trafficking unwanted infants abroad for profit.
If One Child sometimes seems to raise more questions than it can answer, and more pain than it has room to explore, the movie offers an urgent and affecting reminder of what happens when the rule of law subsumes not just free will but the very act of existing — and the humanity that still, against all odds, endures. B+