Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This documentary made it on the shortlist for the 92nd Academy Awards. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It was also recognized at the PGA Awards. This isn’t a guarantee but it’s a good indicator that the film will likely get nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, the film focuses on China’s one-child policy, which was implemented in 1979 and persisted until 2015. The policy was created in order to address the fear of overpopulation, but the policy went too far and has been seen by those outside of China as a violation of human rights. Chief among those violations was China’s initiation of forced sterilizations and even forced abortions. The way that the filmmakers explore this issue is seeing how it impacted their own family, specifically the family of Nanfu Wang who narrates this story.
She narrates as we meet her mother, her grandfather, her younger brother and her maternal uncle. They talk about the fact that the Wang family was allowed to have two children but only under restrictions. Most of the other women in their village were allowed to have only one child. Wang never talks about people who were fined or charged money for disobeying the policy. Her focus is on those women who received forced sterilizations or got forced abortions.
Shuqin Jiang is probably the most compelling interview that is conducted in the entire documentary. Jiang was a family planning official. She was responsible for implementing the policy or specifically the consequence. She was the one giving forced abortions. She, along with other doctors, performed numerous abortions. What’s shocking, though, is her admission of performing late-term abortions and the fact that she was literally killing babies that were more than viable.
What’s shocking is that this policy was put into practice with seemingly no regard for human life. Wang makes the connection that this goes back to Communism and how that philosophy can lead to such disregard for human life, at least individual human life. The policy didn’t seem to value individual beings at all. The filmmakers never underline this point, but the connection is there.
This lack of value for human life leads to one of the most shocking images in this film and possibly one of the most shocking images in all of cinema this year, if ever. The filmmakers talk to Peng Wang, an artist who is an outspoken critic of China’s policy and who has created art, specifically photographic art. Some of his photographs include discarded fetuses that abortion clinics under the Chinese policy haphazardly dumped under a bridge. His photographs of them are truly shocking and disturbing.
The other aspect about this policy is that it encouraged sexism against female babies. Wang’s grandfather explains that if a family can only have one child and that’s it, the preference is to have a male child, so that the family name can be continued. Why that matters is never explored or challenged. It must simply be a vanity or pride thing. Yet, it is a toxic patriarchy that results in people actually abandoning their female babies, some of them on the side of the road. Many babies died from abandonment. Others were found and sold to adoption agencies, which sent the babies to the United States. The filmmakers try to track some people adopted this way, but they don’t get too far with it.
One aspect that the filmmakers don’t even raise, let alone explore or challenge, is how this policy never physically touched men. It only physically touched and virtually abused women. Women were sometimes dragged into facilities and to doctors who would force their sterilization or their abortion. As far as I got from this documentary, it’s not as if men were sterilized. It didn’t seem like men were forced to get a vasectomy, or any surgical procedure to sterilize them, unlike the women. Obviously, this goes to the aforementioned patriarchy. It’s a shame though that this film didn’t raise this point. Yet, it is an incredible film and one of the best documentaries of the year.
Rated R for disturbing content and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 28 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD, including Amazon Prime.