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Review: One Child Nation

August 9, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Born in 1985, six years after China’s communist government brought in their one child policy in 1979 as a way to combat overpopulation, filmmaker Nanfu Wang grew up intimately effected by the law, which stayed in place until 2015.

Now having a child of her own, Wang explores the horrific implementation of the policy and how it shaped her own life and upbringing in her documentary One Child Nation, which she co-directed with Jialing Zhang.

Because Wang’s family lived in a rural area, they were allowed to have a second child five years after she was born, but she was ostracized at school for not being an only child. She also recounts how, before her younger brother was born, her grandmother put a bamboo basket in their living room, fully intending to abandon the baby if it had been another girl, which is what many families ended up doing.

I was obviously very aware of the one child policy before seeing this film, but Wang does a very good job of putting the full extent of it into perspective for all to see, documenting the history of forced abortions and government-mandated sterilizations that were put in place to implement it. The policy led to a rapid decline in girls being born, with many families opting instead to abort so they could try again for a son, and this imbalance of males and females has led to untold social consequences.

It wasn’t until 1992 that the Chinese government started their international adoption program, finally giving unwanted baby girls a way out of the country. Among the people Wang interviews are a midwife who was tasked with destroying countless baby girls, often through post-birth infanticide, and is now trying to atone for her sins by helping couples with infertility; and an artist who started photographing the mangled bodies of babies that he kept finding in trash heaps in order to expose the horrors of how this policy was implemented.

The film also shows the constant propaganda that was used to convince people that the one child policy was for the greater good, with some, including Wang’s own mother, still believing that the law was a necessity to combat starvation. While One Child Nation is often quite unsettling to watch, it’s important viewing for the way that Wang exposes the extent of the atrocities committed by the Chinese government in their pursuit of social engineering, and the dangers of communism in general. This is an interesting and disturbing look at how far China’s one child policy went in terms of destroying lives, and how the effects of it continue to ricochet out to this day.

One Child Nation is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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