Rhys Handley Sheffield Doc/Fest

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019: One Child Nation review

★★★☆☆

As a first-time mother, documentarian Nanfu Wang takes on a behemoth task to reconcile the sins and legacy of her parents’ generation in One Child Nation. This Amazon-produced investigation is a sprawling and ambitious look under the surface of Chinese society in the late 20th century, grappling with the one-child policy that for decades defined family life under the Communist regime.

Now living in the US, Wang grew up in a rural village with the stigma of having a younger brother – here rare status as part of a two-child family setting her apart from peers at school. As such, her relationship to the one-child policy, which led to the widespread abandonment, trafficking and even late-stage abortion of innumerable babies, is a curious one which sets her up well to interrogate it journalistically. The execution of her mission is multi-pronged and variously effective.

On one front, she grapples with her own family and how they responded to the policy, including heart-rending admissions in intensive interviews that her uncle gave up a daughter in an attempt to have a son and that her own parents were prepared to get rid of her brother if he had turned out to be their second daughter. This personal approach is the most fully-realised and viscerally effective, particularly given the context of Wang having recently given birth to her first child.

The director’s second thread leads outwards to the wider domestic impacts of the policy, interviewing the local officials who doled out horrific punishments to those in breach and ex-con traffickers who smuggled a vast number of abandoned infants, mostly girls, into orphanages to be adopted all over the world. This thread comes with stark and haunting imagery of the savagery Chinese citizens were subjected and forced to lower themselves to, though it fails to fully manifest as ‘the state’ at large remains an unknowable spectre – faceless and ultimately unaccountable. Finally, Wang follows the babies sent abroad for adoption and the attempts of one American couple, whose three daughters are all trafficked babies, to trace the origins of adopted Chinese children in an effort to make tangible the scope of the diaspora created by the policy.

All three strands intersect and complement each other but not to reach any final or effective conclusion. The revelations and images contained within are individually resonant and telling of a wider picture, but there’s a sense that Wang, or perhaps her financiers, are cautious of pushing too far. Unfortunately, this winds up leaving One Child Nation a muddle of confused half-messages which reach for and fall slightly short of an admirable goal.

Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 6-11 June. To see the full programme and to buy tickets visit sheffdocfest.com.

Rhys Handley | @RhysHandley2113