I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Nanfu Wang and I both grew up in China (in the 1980s and 1970s, respectively) and moved to the United States as adults. We’ve known each other and shared our works for several years, and I’ve learned to never doubt Nanfu’s ability to tell stories. More than a year before the Sundance premiere of Nanfu’s first film, Hooligan Sparrow (2016), she showed me an early rough cut. I was polite but secretly dismissed it as another amateurish attempt at human rights documentary. Then the film came out and I watched it on a big screen. It was magical—refreshingly personal and political at the same time, a fast-paced and suspenseful yet deeply intimate thriller. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Only a year later, she came out with another unconventional and extraordinary documentary, I Am Another You, her first film shot in the US.
We recently sat down in New York City to record a conversation upon the release of her third film, One Child Nation, in which she returns to China and her past.
Hao Wu Your new documentary feature, One Child Nation, just screened at the Tribeca Film Festival after its world premiere at Sundance. For readers not familiar with China’s one-child policy, can you give a short summary?
Nanfu Wang China’s one-child policy was implemented by the government in 1979 to control population growth. Families were not allowed to have more than one child, preferably a boy, and family planning officers were appointed in small and large communities across the entire country to enforce abortions, sterilizations, and punishments in their districts. The policy was in effect until 2015. In my film, I use the example of my hometown to explore how it was carried out, and how it affected Chinese families and communities and the rest of the world.
HW What made you decide to make a film about the policy?
NW The film is told from my point of view as a new mother. Growing up in China, I didn’t question the one-child policy; it was simply part of life. Having my first child made me think about what it would have been like for the state to control such an essential aspect of my humanity, and I wanted to reflect on my questions about that in the film.
When it was time for production to start, it was unclear whether it would be safe for me to go back to China because my previous film, Hooligan Sparrow, was politically sensitive. I reached out to my friend Jialing Zhang, a great filmmaker I met in graduate school in the US, to see if she would be interested in codirecting with me. She was the perfect collaborator for this project—her doggedness and sensitivity were crucial to the process of finding and interviewing people affected by the policy. Like me, she was born in the 1980s under the one-child policy and only left China for school as an adult. We shared a lot in common, including the same sense of responsibility to tell this story.
HW One Child Nation is your third documentary. What were the challenges in making this film?
NW One Child Nation was creatively more challenging than Hooligan Sparrow and I Am Another You. My two previous films both follow a central character—Hooligan Sparrow is about a feminist and women’s rights activist in China, and I Am Another You revolves around a homeless young man in Florida. I simply captured what my main characters were doing and responded to their actions. The approach was forward-looking: I filmed what was unfolding in front of me. One Child Nation was the opposite: There wasn’t a central character, just a topic—the one-child policy—so we had to find characters who could speak about this subject.
When we started filming, the policy had already ended. So instead of capturing events unfolding in the present, we had to go back into the past and discover what had happened and reflect on that. This was something I hadn’t done before. At first I wasn’t sure how to make the film without turning it into a historical documentary with archival photographs and talking heads. The main challenge was to make a policy film as compelling as a character-driven film.
HW Like with your previous two films, you yourself are a character in the documentary. Did you know from the beginning that you would be in front of the camera again?
NW With Hooligan Sparrow and I Am Another You, I was part of the film in a very organic way—I was living my characters’ lives alongside them. My presence affected both stories and, in turn, they changed my life. With One Child Nation, this wasn’t the case. I didn’t live the lives of the government officials who carried out the policy, or the human traffickers, or the adoptive parents outside of China who believed they were adopting orphans. I had to ask myself, “How can I be part of the film without just serving as a voiceover?” I wasn’t in the position to comment on these people’s lives, and it wasn’t something I wanted to do. So what was my role?
In the opening scene, I appear with my baby because becoming a mother had been my initial motivation to make the documentary. But after the film takes off and leads us to meet different people, the question was, “Where do I fit in?” How could I blend the characters’ lives with my personal reflections and discoveries while making this film?
HW Was there a moment of epiphany when you felt you found a solution?
NW It was a gradual process. There wasn’t one solution that could solve all the problems. My guiding principle was to always reflect on what changed within me after meeting each of these people. Did the conversations I had with them shift my perspective? Sometimes it was not that apparent because it didn’t happen dramatically like, Oh, today I changed my view of the world. It was very subtle, and I had to ask, “What did this experience make me feel?” I wanted the audience to feel how I felt and see what I saw. Once that was clear, it allowed me to focus on my emotional responses, thoughts, and reflections. And that became my approach to each character.
HW Personal documentaries often focus on intimate stories around the filmmaker’s lives. But you are blending the highly political with the personal. Did you consciously create this unique, two-pronged approach, or did it just evolve along the way?
NW It wasn’t an intentional choice. I never thought I would be part of my films. When I was making Hooligan Sparrow, I was still a student in the journalism school at NYU. It was my thesis project. All the education I had received was on direct cinema, cinema verité. So, of course, I had absorbed the rules and ethics of being objective. I knew how to properly ask an interview subject to include my question as part of their answer. I was never imagining that my voice would be part of my films.
But when I came back from China after shooting Hooligan Sparrow and started editing the footage, it was obvious that I had become part of the story. The film was about the impact of activism on people’s lives and how everyone involved was in one way or another targeted by the government. My own experience of being targeted by the government was a perfect example of the scale of their crackdown on protesters. The people I was filming were seasoned activists, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t involved in politics in China; I simply slipped into the story because I was there with my camera. I realized that omitting myself would make the story incomplete and not nearly as powerful. So I needed to put myself into the film.
HW How exactly did you insert yourself?
NW I got my first DSLR camera in 2012 and developed a habit of filming nonstop. I take photos and videos of everything, even when it’s not related to any specific project. I like reflections and shadows. I like abstract images and shots that are out of focus. One of my obsessions is to take self-portraits. During the making of Hooligan Sparrow I shot a lot of pictures of myself reflected in windows or mirrors. All these became useful when I had to weave myself into the film.
HW How about your narrating voice? When did you start to build that into your work?
NW Deciding to do the voiceover for Hooligan Sparrow was hard because ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been very self-conscious of my voice. At fourteen, I loved storytelling and reciting poems in public, but my teachers said my voice wasn’t good. When I met strangers, people would ask me whether I had a cold. I developed this complex, and I told my mom that I believed something was wrong with my throat and that I wanted surgery. She took me to the doctor who said there was nothing wrong with me. (laughter)
While doing the voiceover for Hooligan Sparrow, I was very uncomfortable and afraid I would be judged for my accent. Every session in the VO booth was torture. Hearing the recorded lines, I would cringe and even cry. The final recordings for the ninety-minute film took over eight hours, because I struggled so much with English pronunciation. My husband and one of my mentors were there to help and coach me, but often I couldn’t understand what was wrong with how I pronounced certain words, for instance “people” or “rule.”
HW What about the voiceover in I Am Another You?
NW Again, my goal was not to be in the film. I knew it would be so much easier to make a film without myself in it. Not only because of my struggle with my voice, but also because the editing decisions are difficult too: Am I including too much of myself or not enough? Am I saying too much or too little?
Then I had a few rough-cut screenings that included just the character’s footage. Afterward people kept asking me, “What is this story about? Why are you making this film?” I had to explain why I was so fascinated with this person and, as I heard myself talking to them, it became clear to me that the film was less about this homeless guy than about what I saw in him—his choice to live on the street and the notion of freedom in that. The film was about what freedom meant to me as someone raised in China. I didn’t have a sense of what freedom looked like until I met him, and I wanted to understand it through him.
HW So I Am Another You became an investigative story in which you lead the viewers on your journey with this person. You just met him by chance. After he agreed that you could follow him with your camera, you slept in parks next to him, ate food out of garbage cans, and lived a real life on the street, all the while asking yourself questions. The different layers of answers made it a really fascinating film.
In school we were told that in observational cinema we as filmmakers shouldn’t get involved, especially if the film touches on political or human rights issues. You broke that rule. We were also told, “show, don’t tell”—if there’s voiceover by the filmmaker, he or she should refrain from sharing feelings, but just provide missing facts not communicated visually. You broke that rule too! (laughter)
NW My rule for writing voiceover is the opposite—share how you feel. I constantly take notes during production, and then at night I write in my journal how a certain character or event made me feel. If I interview someone and what they say makes me cry, I write that down. During the editing phase, I go back to my journal and try to distill the writing into short paragraphs. Then I see how they correspond to the scenes. I review the text again and again. Information is only kept if it’s part of the emotion.
HW That’s what I call the “Nanfu style.” The emotional impact is the core strength of your work. Because you’re not afraid to share how you feel, we get very close-up in the story. You’re not only our trusted guide but also one of the characters in the film, which makes the viewing experience much more intimate than in other documentaries. Werner Herzog guides us through his films with his distinct voiceover (and accent!) and sometimes with his physical presence, but his narration is less emotional than yours.
What else do you think is part of the “Nanfu style,” besides the emotional immediacy that you provide through your first-person narrative?
NW I can’t really summarize it. I didn’t even know I had a particular style until I heard other people commenting on my work. It’s like when you go shopping for clothes with friends and they say, “This is so you!” It’s hard to put into words yourself what makes something “so you.”
HW What about the business side of filmmaking? Did you find that challenging when you started out?
NW In 2015, when I started working on Hooligan Sparrow, I had no knowledge of what it would take to produce and release a film, bring it to a festival, and so on. I was new to the US and new to this career.
HW So it was like a crash course in how the industry works.
NW Technical things you can learn from YouTube—how to use a camera, how to edit. But there wasn’t any tutorial on the business part of filmmaking. When I made the budget for Hooligan Sparrow, I didn’t know the cost of color correction or sound design. I put five hundred dollars for each! (laughter) Of course, my applications for funding were rejected because anyone looking at these figures must have realized that I had no idea what it takes to finish a film. I only understand that now.
Embarking on I Am Another You, I thought I had already launched my career. Hooligan Sparrow had done surprisingly well—it played at many festivals and was even shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Everybody was asking, “What are you working on next?” But when I started fundraising for my next project, I again received rejection after rejection. This time I didn’t even raise one cent. I Am Another You was completely self-funded.
HW But it won a Special Jury Award at SXSW in 2017.
NW It did. Fortunately, after the premiere we got distribution. Eventually, I Am Another You was broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens and released in theaters with FilmRise. I’m very grateful for that. But it was a lesson I learned early in my career—
HW Which was?
NW The success of one film doesn’t guarantee it for the next film. Some things become easier because you gain more experience, but you can never rely on previous recognition. What’s your experience?
HW Both my films had distribution with varying degrees of success. I’m still trying to figure it out. I don’t know what my next film will be or where my funding could come from.
But back to you. As a fellow filmmaker, I admire how you do your shots. You’re not afraid of footage being out of focus or more impressionistic than factual. You also seem very free in your editing, for instance in the way you handle sound in conjunction with the pacing of your edits. Slowing some shots down and speeding others up makes for an unusual dynamic and a sense of unpredictability. Even if I know how the story might unfold, I still don’t know how you’re going to treat it. How did you come up with that approach?
NW I didn’t consciously develop or follow a certain style. The more I did it, the more it became recognized as a pattern by other people. I do wonder if I work this way because I learned documentary film at a comparatively late age. Because I grew up in a small village, I only started to watch films in my late twenties, and documentaries even later than that. When people ask me which filmmakers I admire most or whether I have seen certain movies, oftentimes I can only say that I didn’t grow up having that education.
With Hooligan Sparrow, I didn’t know that it would be a film. I was making it without a goal. It was almost like a kid finding some stones on the beach and falling in love with them. I kept building and eventually it turned into a shape people recognized and remembered.
HW I think One Child Nation is a departure of sorts.
NW Yes, I want every film to be different. I don’t like repeating myself, although it’s inevitable to a certain degree. My assignment for myself is for each of film to include some challenges I haven’t dealt with before.
HW Both of us express ourselves through our different approaches to the medium. And we were shaped by our respective upbringings.
NW What in your upbringing shaped you as a filmmaker?
HW When I was a teenager in the mid-’80s, China had just opened up to the outside world and the media environment was very pro-Western. Then, after the 1989 student protest and the subsequent government crackdown, everything came to a screeching halt. Also, I suspected I was gay but couldn’t articulate that at the time, since there was very little public discussion of LGBTQ matters. So I felt my youth was stunted in certain ways and I found myself gravitating toward stories of young people, their coming of age—and their attempts to break free.
NW Your films The Road to Fame and People’s Republic of Desire definitely speak of that.
HW What about you? You’ve now made three major films. Are there particular experiences in the past that shaped your outlook? What makes you respond to certain topics versus others?
NW I think the most impactful event in my life was my father’s early death. It affected my worldview, my career choice, and the stories I would tell. My father died very suddenly when he was thirty-four years old. I was twelve. It was a traumatic experience because he was my closest friend. And for a long time, I couldn’t understand what death meant, and I hoped he would come back. Only gradually did I realize that he was really gone. As a teenager and through my early twenties, I believed I would die early, too. That made me look at time very differently. And because my father and I had been so close, I felt I was living my life for both of us. I believed I had a responsibility to double my life’s meaning and do something significant every day. I wanted to experience as much as possible in the world and not repeat the day before.
My father’s death also made me resent China’s unjust healthcare system. If we had been able to pay for the care he needed, he would still be alive. Not long after he died, I had to quit school because my family couldn’t afford the cost anymore. That made me think about the educational system and the injustice in that. I grew up in poverty and have seen a lot, and I think that sensitized me to social justice issues and made me respond to the experiences of marginalized people.
Choosing to become a filmmaker had a lot to do with my father too. He liked to write, and he always told stories. Doing documentaries allows me to live others’ lives and to tell different stories. With Hooligan Sparrow, I tried the life of activism, and with I Am Another You the life of homelessness. Each film expands my own existence and experience. My father’s death still reminds me to maximize my life in every sense.
HW I knew that your father passed away when you were young, but I wasn’t aware of how much this loss has shaped your path. That really helps me understand you as an artist. Now you are a parent yourself. How has that impacted you? You still seem to be working on multiple projects at the same time.
NW Being a parent has made me more productive, actually. As a mother you have so little time for yourself. My son was born premature, so for a long time I couldn’t nurse him. I had to pump breast milk for half an hour, then feed him for half an hour, then clean the bottles for half an hour, and then pump again. For months, everything was centered around my baby. If I had a little time window for myself, it felt very precious and I wanted to use it well.
Becoming a parent also made me rethink the risks I take with the films I do. In the past I was pretty reckless—I would want to experience anything. But now I can’t just say I’m going to live on the street for a month.
HW After your experiences while filming Hooligan Sparrow, wasn’t it a risk to go back and make a film on a subject so profoundly taboo in China? Enforced abortions of often full-grown fetuses, state-ordered sterilizations of thousands of women, human trafficking, orphanages run for profit, and fraudulent adoption practices are human rights violations that the government would rather not have revisited in a film. Could you have been arrested making One Child Nation?
NW Whenever I traveled to China for shoots, my codirector Jialing, who stayed in the US, used a GPS tracking app to see my location in real-time. We stayed in touch multiple times a day and made emergency plans in case we lost contact with each other. I avoided using China-based social media apps or email platforms. I also avoided taking public transportation or staying at hotels which required an ID, as the government can track people through the system.
During my trip to interview the former human trafficker Duan Yueneng, I needed to get on a train with him to film his previous trafficking route. Jialing had arranged for a private driver to drive along the railway, ready to pick me up any time should I need to get off the train. In China, you never know what’s going to happen. We always have to prepare for the worst.
HW One Child Nation will be released in the US in August. How do you see the film being perceived in a country that is so divided over women’s rights to choose? What’s your and Jialing’s answer to a pro-life hardliner?
NW Sometimes I think it’s ironic that I left a country where the government forced women to abort, and now I live in the US where state governments restrict abortions. On the surface they seem like opposites, but both societies work to control women’s bodies in their own way.
HW One important thing I’ve learned from you is to always keep an open mind. When I first heard you were making a film about the one-child policy, I thought, What’s new there? We’ve all read about it so many times. It’s an evil policy. But when I saw the actual aborted fetuses and saw people recounting how they were forced to do this, it was and still is shocking to me.
NW Was it shocking because you knew the story but hadn’t seen the images?
HW Yes, I would say so. And that speaks to the power of film. I’ve seen some short documentaries about girls who got adopted overseas, but I don’t think there’s any other film that reflects on the psychological impact of the one-child policy on the population.
NW Our goal was to make a film that would still be valid as a historical record in fifty or a hundred years. And we wanted to do justice to the people who lived through this policy.
HW What do you think resonates most with people when they see the film?
NW I can’t speculate about people’s responses, but one scene that moves many is my interview with the midwife from my village. She carried out so many forced abortions but later felt remorse and the need to repent. People empathize with her feelings of shame, remorse, and pain. These emotions are universal.
HW You are now teaching at NYU. Only a few years ago, you were on the other side of the classroom. What do you tell your students?
NW In order to make documentary films, you really need to love doing it.
HW In addition to love, what else is required? I think as filmmakers we frequently doubt ourselves. Before anyone believes in you, you have to have this almost foolish blind faith in yourself.
NW Absolutely. You need love, faith, and perseverance.
Hao Wu is a filmmaker whose documentaries have received support from the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms, ITVS, Sundance, Tribeca, and others. He previously held management roles at Alibaba, TripAdvisor, and Excite@Home. His latest feature, People’s Republic of Desire, won the Grand Jury Award at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival. In May 2019, Netflix launched his new documentary short All in My Family.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee