There are a great many talking heads in Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang’s One Child Nation, a documentary devoted to exploring how exactly China went about preventing 338 million births between 1979 and 2015, when the one child policy ended and two children became the preferred number. (It seems there were no longer enough young to provide for the old.) And as a rule, talking heads do not make for compelling film. But such heads, and such talk. A mother — Wang’s own — whose name means “bring a younger brother soon,” and who faced the very real possibility of abandoning her second child, had it been a girl. An uncle who left his child to be picked up or die at the marketplace, because his mother threatened to kill herself or the baby otherwise. An aunt who sold her daughter to a trafficker because at least then, the child would have a chance at life. A trafficker jailed for collecting abandoned children from the side of the road and selling them to orphanages (which then offered the children for international adoption). A midwife who kept count “out of guilt” of the 50-60,000 forced sterilizations and abortions she performed — on women who were “dragged to us like pigs” — and who now treats only people struggling with infertility in an effort to atone for her sins. A decorated party worker who overcame her initial feeling that abortion was an atrocity because she came to understand that the country was engaged in a population war, and that the national interest had to be placed abover her personal feelings. And on and on.
And it helps that the images that show up between the faces are not simply scene-setting, but demonstrative. A slogan painted on a wall: “Better to shed a river of blood than to birth more than one child.” A yellow medical waste bag atop a heap of refuse, split to reveal its intact and inert contents. A pigsty where children hid in the hopes of escaping collection. And on and on.
It also helps that the film stays close to the ground — here’s what people remember from a time that many would prefer to forget — and only occasionally allows itself reflection. Wang asking her younger self, “Are my thoughts my own, or simply learned?” Wang hearing the constant refrain, “It was policy, we had no choice,” from those she interviews. Wang contrasting her childhood feeling of embarrassment over having a brother with her motherly desire to give her own child “someone to grow up with.”