LOS ANGELES – In order to get footage out of China, filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang had to rely on an elaborate relay system – one that involved a series of messengers, GPS tracking and covert calls.
“If you make anything that’s even remotely political, it’s possible to face the risks of being arrested,” Wang says.
Documentaries in China must be approved by the government, Zhang adds. If they take issue with any policies, they’re immediately stopped. Ones that get through: “Ones that deal with things like smog,” she says.
Both interested in the country’s one-child policy (which lasted from 1979 to 2015), they decided to talk to family and friends still living in China. The result, “One Child Nation,” shows what transpired from that decision.
A gender imbalance, Wang says, has prompted kidnapping and trafficking in bordering countries, such as Laos, Pakistan and Cambodia. Emotional trauma has taken a toll as well.
“During the making of the film, I talked to my mom, my aunt and my uncle,” she says. “All of them had once experienced a forced abortion or were forced to abandon their child or had their child taken away from them. (When that happens), it’s not something you can forget.”
When Wang showed the documentary to her family, they were complimentary. “Everything portrayed in the film is so truthful,” her mother said, “but I still believe the one-child policy was necessary.”
Without it, residents feared, they might have starved to death. “But that was the result of the great leap forward of manmade disaster,” Wang says. “Sociologists and economists have been debating that if China had focused on education and women – if they were allowed education and to pursue career – the population would have decreased as a natural result, versus this state-forced law.”
In the course of her interviews, Wang learned about girls who had been abandoned, mothers who had been sterilized, children who had been abducted.
Because the footage was so controversial, she and Zhang had to plan extensively. “We imagined the worst-case scenario,” she says. “If I was not in contact with her for two hours (I had to decide), ‘What do I do?’ In four hours, ‘What do I do?’ Sometimes she was in the U.S. tracking me through GPS real time. If I showed up in a place where I wasn’t supposed to be, then it alerted her.”
While “One Child Nation” was on the short list for Oscar consideration, it was prevented from airing in China. Most likely, Wang says, she would be arrested if she tried to show it there.
Still, Zhang says, documentaries critical of the Chinese government do get an audience – an underground audience. Quite likely, “One Child Nation” has been seen there.
An Oscar nomination, however, would have given it greater attention, particularly among the mainstream in China.
Slated to air March 30 on PBS’ “Independent Lens,” the documentary won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Both directors say they’ll continue to make films that educate Chinese people about policies that may not have been in their best interests.