One Child Nation | Docs/ology

One Child Nation

Director: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

Runtime: 85 minutes

You’d want Huaru Yuan to be your grandmother.

When we first meet the 84-year-old woman in One Child Nation, she seems like just the sort of woman who’d bake cookies and gently laugh at all your jokes and, maybe, spoil the grandkids rotten. She’d almost have to love children. As a village midwife, she probably helped deliver Nanfu Wang, one of the documentary’s directors, in 1985—just one of countless babies she helped usher into the world.

But when asked about how she helped further China’s One-Child Policy back then, she admits to what she believes is a terrible, blood-soaked past. By her own estimate, Huaru helped carry out 50,000-60,000 forced sterilizations and abortions. Many of the latter took place when the fetus was eight or even nine months along. Often they were born alive, and killed only after they were out of the womb.

“My hands trembled doing it,” she says, “but I had no choice.”

Now Huaru, a devout Buddhist, tries to (again, in her words) atone for her sins. She now works to cure infertility—believing that each new child she helps give life to may help offset the lives she took.

One Child Nation offers a riveting and, at times, horrific look at China’s One-Child Policy—a policy that held sway in the country for more than 35 years, until it was finally abolished in 2015. The story unfurls like layers of an onion, with each new layer revealing fascinating and terrible secrets.

Directors Nanfu and Jialing Zhang both were born in China during the One-Child Policy, and Nanfu’s family becomes a focal point for the documentary. And, at first, the two find much of what they—and we—might expect. We see China’s full-court propaganda press for the One-Child Policy. We’re told how much the Chinese culture historically has valued boys over girls. (Nanfu’s own name means “Man Pillar,” reflecting the family’s hope that she’d be a boy.) And when Nanfu interviews her own mother, it’s clear that she’s still a passionate believer in the old policy. Without it, Nanfu’s mom insists, the country would’ve resorted to cannibalism.

And yet, Nanfu’s own mother fought her own state-mandated sterilization and eventually gave birth to Nanfu’s little brother. And in an even more startling revelation, Nanfu learns that had he been a little sister instead, she likely would’ve been abandoned in the streets.

Nanfu’s mother is not kidding. Other members of the family did leave babies out to die—just as countless other Chinese families did. Fetuses, clearly nearly full-term, were tossed out with the garbage. Women were forcibly sterilized—sometimes dragged into clinics by six or eight men as the women screamed and wept. And as the documentary goes on, we discover that China’s One-Child Policy didn’t just change the landscape of China, it had impacts here, too—some of which are still poignantly in play.

One Child Nation is a fascinating, difficult and deeply personal work. It illuminates a time and culture much different from ours, yet underlines our shared sense of humanity. This is a film with no clear heroes or villains, only people living in a strict and dangerous time in an authoritarian land. Village leaders mournfully reminisce about the families that refused to obey the One-Child Policy and the houses those families lost because of it. People who plucked unwanted babies from the streets and sold them to orphanages—some of them government-owned—are arrested for human trafficking.

And Huaru Yuan smiles sadly and shows us pictures of the couples for whom she helped rekindle the hope of family, even as she worries about the blood still on her trembling hands.

One Child Nation is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Written by Paul Asay