Interview: Director Nanfu Wang on the dangers of accepting propaganda as truth
When I asked Nanfu Wang, the Chinese documentarian behind 2019’s chilling One Child Nation, about the possibility of artistic freedom in China, she simply laughs.
“More freedom in China?” Wang repeats. “Where?”
In a certain sense, Wang is all too familiar with the draconic methods of the Chinese government and the propaganda that they use to keep their citizens in check. But it wasn’t easy to recognize at first. After leaving the country at 26, Wang began to realize just how much she had been brainwashed by the Chinese government after she started making documentaries about her home country. During the filming of 2016’s activist documentary Hooligan Sparrow, Wang found herself clashing with the government authorities for the first time. As she followed her subject Ye Haiyan as she fought against a school director accused of raping six female students, Wang often found herself just as big of a target as Haiyan herself. Wang became an enemy of the very country that she once whole-heartedly supported. To finish the film, Wang even had to smuggle the footage out of the country just so it could be seen. But Hooligan Sparrow was just the beginning of Wang’s re-awakening.
On One Child Nation, Wang returned to the country with the very real possibility that she would be taken away at any time. Now that she was marked as a political dissident, the stakes were much higher. But this time around, she wasn’t alone. Her and her co-director, Lynn Zhang, set up a network between the two, tracking each other using their phones in the off-chance that something were to happen. With this fail-safe method in place, Wang and Zhang set up interviews with their subjects for the documentary, which included midwives, Chinese officials, and even criminals deemed “child traffickers” by the country itself. It seemed that nearly everyone had their differing opinions on the policy and how it was implemented. But perhaps the most interesting interviews came from Wang’s own immediate family. As she discovers alongside the audience, her family had their own dark secrets. Even more surprising was their reaction to the implementation of the One-Child Policy. It was eye-opening just how far they would go to satisfy the government officials.
One Child Nation is therefore Wang’s interpretation of how the country tore itself apart from the inside as the government proclaimed headstrong success. It provides an alternative viewpoint of the policy in action, thoroughly vetting the people who lived through it and the people who enacted it. It’s a brave documentary, especially given the omnipotent power that the Chinese officials had and still holds today. After all, the forced prevention of millions of children didn’t happen all on its own.
We were able to talk to director Nanfu Wang about her thoughts on the policy, her relationship with her family, and what the future holds for China as they move into the implementation of the Two-Child Policy.
One Child Nation draws upon archival footage and remnants of Chinese culture to support its claims. How much of the film comes from propaganda that you encountered in your own life versus things you had to find out about?
I think the majority of the film is discovery. I had grown up in China, and the One-Child Policy was always in the background. It was always there, and you stopped paying attention. You stopped questioning it. It wasn’t until making this film that it made me look back and examine the things that I saw or remembered or taught, and to explore what was behind those things. What was the reality of it? There were a lot of new discoveries I made through the research. The new discoveries were not things that didn’t exist before; it was the things that happened in the past that were not accessible by the general public, or sometimes censored in China.
At any point during the making of the film did you look back and think, “Wow, I was a completely different person back then?”
Yeah, of course. Before I came to the United States, I worked in China; I lived in China. When I was a child in school, you were eager to recognized as a good student. You sang songs about communism and socialism; you memorized Marxism and Maoism. You’d shout out propaganda slogans without even knowing what those things meant. I remember in middle school I wanted to become a member of the Communism Youth League, and I was taught, like everyone else in China, that the love to the government is equal to the love of your country. So all of those things looking back, it was because of how young and how I spent most of my life being educated there. I never even questioned whether it was reasonable or if it was something that I should think about first. We often ask ourselves questions too: having met officials that carried out the policy, if we were in their position… if we were a government official, would we make different decisions? Would we do things differently? Would we be able and dare to stand up against the government and not simply follow their orders? I think the answer is often that we aren’t sure. If we didn’t know what was right and wrong, and the only sense of “right” was what the authorities told us, then it’s very likely that we would make those same decisions against our individual personal morality.
How have people reacted to the film in Asian countries? Do people there know it even exists?
I’m sure a lot of people know it exists and I’m sure the Chinese government knows of the film’s existence. It hasn’t been shown in mainland China officially yet, but it was shown in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. It will be shown in Taiwan and other Mandarin speaking countries throughout the world. And the reaction that we got so far from Chinese audiences–whether it’s Hong Kong people or Chinese who live outside of China–a lot of them were shocked and shared with us how they also were unlearning the things that they were taught and facing the reality and brutality of the One-Child Policy through the film for the first time.
In the film, you talk to political artist Wang Peng whose art explicitly criticizes the One-Child Policy. Has he faced any repercussions by the Chinese government?
He used to be a university professor who teaches fine arts. When he started doing paintings about the One-Child Policy, he was fired by the university and all his exhibits were banned. Recently, his studio has also been demolished. So he’s been facing a lot of repression and retaliation for speaking up and for criticizing the policy.
In the past, you’ve always worked on your own on your documentaries (Hooligan Sparrow (2016), I Am Another You (2017)). This time around, you’ve enlisted the help of Jialing (Lynn) Zhang. What was it like having someone else making the documentary with you? Was it a different experience?
Jialing is a great friend. We’ve known each other several years before making One Child Nation together. When I started the idea for the film, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go back to China because of the previous film I made, Hooligan Sparrow. That was a very politically sensitive film. So I reached out to her and asked if she would be willing to collaborate with me, and she lived in China at the time. We started working together and she would do underground research. By the time I was able to go back to China, she also moved to the US. We would collaborate in a way where whenever I went back to China, she stayed in the US and monitor me on the GPS and communicate with whoever I needed to meet. There was no trace of communication left between me and the subject. With Jialing, we were both born in the 1980s and left China to come to the US for graduate school. We shared this common sense of responsibility that we wanted to make this film because it’s our generation and document the history. We had the same mission of how the film should be as a history of ours. We also had a very similar sensibility and that made the collaboration really enjoyable and efficient. Especially when I edited the film myself, it’s always great to have a person to bounce ideas off of. Otherwise, I would be very close to the story.
What was it like talking to your family members about their experiences when the One-Child Policy was active?
I thought a lot, and asked them if they were comfortable doing that. Still, when I approached them and asked them to be on camera, it took me a long time to ask. We had never had that kind of serious conversation. I had to muster up my courage four or five times before I could ask, “hey uncle, do you think you can talk about what you did in the past?” It was very difficult.
After talking with your family members, do you think your opinion of them has changed?
I certainly do not blame them and I feel much more empathy towards them. I really feel after seeing how effective the propaganda is and how powerful it is, the abundant propaganda material is really difficult for anyone who lived their entire life in China to think independently and critically. So I felt that the values that they had and the mindsets that they had were all shaped by years and decades of indoctrination around them.
What was it like to talk to Chinese people about the policy? Did you find that it was something that people always wanted to talk about, or did you find it difficult for people to open up?
It varies from person to person. For some people it came out naturally, like the midwife. She admitted right away how many forced abortions she performed. With other people, sometimes there was a longer conversation until they really fully trusted you. Sometimes that could take months before someone is willing to be on camera.
Are there any updates to any of the stories left hanging in the film?
Today, in the New York Times, the twins got reunited. They finally met each other–the US twin met her birth parents and her twin sister. I’m thrilled for them!
What do you think the future holds for people living in China?
I think the future largely depends on how this generation remembers their past. If the history was only written by the authorities which is usually the case, then it’s very dangerous that the future will repeat the past. We hope that the film can serve as a record to provide the true history that is a different version than what the authorities say it was.
Are the government systems (family planning officers, etc) still in place today? Is modern China different from the China shown in the film?
The original family planning officers–the offices and bureaus are still there. Although their job responsibilities are different now. They want people to have more children. Instead of forcing someone to abort, the officials are trying to encourage people, sometimes using incentives, to make people have more children.
What do you think makes a great documentary?
I think a great documentary starts with a great story. A great story that people can resonate with no matter where they are and when in history they decide to watch the film–whether it’s now or in the future. If the story is still resonating with people, that’s a good documentary.
What do you want to say to the people who have watched your film? What do you want people to take away from it?
For the Chinese audience, we really hope that they can learn what really happened during the One-Child Policy, and also to actively question what they have been taught, and not take any message that is provided to them for granted. We hope that people outside of China can see the film and recognize the propaganda that is around them. It’s not unique in China–in other countries that are more free than China, the propaganda is usually more subtle and harder to recognize. They could be in TV news, social media, and political campaigns. It’s even more dangerous if people mistake propaganda as truth.
This interview was conducted in-person by Li-Wei Chu on August 8, 2019.