Who gets to tell the shameful stories of a nation’s past? Imagine a negotiating table, but for collective memory. Whom should we see seated, and where? Historically, the victors have taken a disproportionate number of seats, controlling the historical record apparently among the spoils of war. In more recent decades, marginalized and oppressed people have fought their way into the negotiations, staking their claim in the story of nations that are equal parts theirs. Regardless, the questions of who gets a seat at the negotiating table, and who sits where, are always in flux.

Co-directors Nanfu Wang (“Hooligan Sparrow”) and Jialing Zhang’s (“Complicit”) handling of these questions will surprise, especially given their subject matter: In their documentary feature “One Child Nation,” the two native Chinese women filmmakers take on the history and present-day repercussions of China’s one-child policy. As the name implies, this legal measure limited families in China to having one child; what isn’t as readily discernible are the great, human-rights-out-the-window lengths the country went to in order to enforce it. 

I expect many of you will go into the film awaiting victims’ accounts of what the policy stripped from them, much like I did. But Wang and Zhang chose to tell the story a different way, incorporating the perspectives of people with varying levels of complicity in the policy’s brutal enforcement. The result is a film that renegotiates not only China’s memory of this policy gone horribly wrong, but the entire notion of historical memory along with it.

One of the first subjects, Wang, the conductor of on-screen interviews and director whose presence is most apparent throughout, talks to is a village official from the rural community she grew up in. While we saw Wang’s own mother and will see many others speak in the same anticipatory, defensive way, when asked about how they responded to the policy, this man’s responses were punctuated by long pauses between confessions of his role in the cruelty. When he describes the forced sterilizations he witnessed, he calls them “fucked up,” though he does not claim that he tried to disrupt them. At the end of this sequence, while the camera stays fixed on the official and his neighbors, we hear Wang think out loud about whether to use the village official’s connections to find women who lost their children in the enforcement of the policy. Another off-screen voice challenges the thought of putting them on camera and asking them to re-experience their trauma.

In the film that ensues, Wang and Zhang seem to heed this warning. We see Wang speak to a midwife who aborted children without the mother’s consent. She speaks with a family planning official, who justifies the policy as an act of putting national interest before personal discomfort. She speaks with researchers who try to track and reunite abandoned children with their birth families, with journalists who resisted the policy and its aftermath in their respective forms. What we do not hear are any pained accounts from forcibly sterilized women, from children sold to orphanages in the strictest days of the policy.

Wang and Zhang do not tap into this ethos, which seems so natural to a narrative that has numerous victims, but I think that was deliberate and wise. That might have been too much of what we expected to hear, might have matched this story’s frequency to that of most of the stories we hear, drowning in a cacophony of shameful histories and unimpressive resolutions. Instead, we have to wrestle with the complexity, if not futility, of allocating individual blame, as well as the perhaps more worthwhile question of reparation and collective healing.

That said, ambivalence surrounding enablement of the policy does not register throughout. For instance, whenever the directors had a child on camera, the emotional weight of the burden they inherit from their elders was not subdued but patiently allowed to sit, uneasily, unresolved on our minds and hearts. To that end, the most heartrending scene is easily the interview with a twin, living in China, whose sister was taken away. When the pre-teen girl lists off what she wants for her sister — a loving set of adoptive parents in America, where her twin was found to have ended up — she gets sidetracked with what she would want, were they to reunite someday. They would have snowball fights in the winter, wear matching clothes and her tearful, thorough list goes on. In this young girl’s desperate fantasy, we watch it unfold: the outstanding loss, the open wound that is neither shrinking nor scabbing, as time goes by and steps toward healing are neglected.

By speaking to unexpected figures in the history of this policy and soliciting otherwise unheard of accounts, Wang and Zhang blurred the supposed line between victim and perpetrator, between innocent and guilty. Isn’t that how it should be? Isn’t history too complex to arrange into simple categories of good and evil? If anything, I hope “One Child Nation” might inspire others to tackle shameful histories in an equally nuanced light. There is such a thing as accountability, as taking responsibility for the wrong you did. Guilt is sitting with that, allowing it to fester, when the only way to truly take responsibility is to work together for reparation and positive change.

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