The Courageous Vulnerability of Doc Filmmaker Nanfu Wang

Four years ago today, the documentary One Child Nation, by Nanfu Wang, was released in the US. One Child Nation is a rich and moving film about the aftermath of China’s one-child policy and a true testament to Nanfu Wang’s power as a filmmaker. 

Nanfu Wang’s path to filmmaking is uniquely inspiring. Born in a small rural village in Jiangxi Province, China, Nanfu felt alienated from her peers because she had a younger brother, while most of her classmates were only children as a result of the one-child policy. When she was twelve, her father passed away, forcing Nanfu to drop out of her school and enroll in a vocational school in order to become a primary school teacher to help support her family. 

After several years of work, Nanfu received a fellowship from Shanghai University and got her masters in English literature. She then moved to the US and studied media studies at Ohio University, and then documentary filmmaking at New York University. Nanfu’s extensive education is all the more impressive because it shows her resilience in the face of truly difficult circumstances. She honed her filmmaking craft more and more with each of her degrees. 

Nanfu’s first feature film was her documentary Hooligan Sparrow. The film follows human rights activists in China, including the courageous Ye Haiyan (known as “Hooligan Sparrow”) as they fight for the rights of sex workers in China, and attempt to bring accountability to government officials who had sexually assaulted many young women. Nanfu and her family faced government surveillance after the release of this film, but it did not stop her from telling stories about Chinese history in all of their complexity.   

Click on image to enlarge

Nanfu’s next film, which is perhaps her chef d’oeuvre, was One Child Nation. One Child Nation is a haunting and eye-opening account of the one-child policy’s devastating consequences on families and Chinese society. Through raw and unfiltered interviews with family members, local officials, and former family planning enforcers, the film unveils the dark underbelly of the one-child policy—forced abortions, sterilizations, child trafficking, and the heart-wrenching abandonment of unwanted children.

Nanfu also adds a moving personal element, as she turns the camera on her own family, revealing the intimate struggles they endured under the policy. She even interviews herself with her child sitting on her lap throughout the interviews. It was when she was pregnant with her son, in fact, that she found inspiration for the film. In an interview with FF2 contributor Lesley Coffin, Nanfu says, “[It] was when I became pregnant that I started having more questions about the one-child policy and started talking to my mom about her experiences. And her answers helped me realize how little I knew about it.”

…my family’s story is like a microcosm for the country…

These conversations with her family drove her to create the film, which is perhaps why her own family is at the heart of it. As she puts it: “From the beginning, I knew I wanted to include my family’s story. I’d be telling a story about something that happened to my mother or uncle, and realize my family’s story is like a microcosm for the country.”

After One Child Nation, Nanfu began to turn her keen eye toward America, where she had been living for years at that point. In 2021, she released In the Same Breath, which compares and contrasts the Chinese and American governments’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic… exposing both for their harmful propaganda.

Nanfu is an incredibly courageous storyteller, going from a primary school teacher in a small rural town to an award-winning filmmaker, braving government surveillance to make sure that history gets told, and finding the vulnerability to include her own personal narrative in her films. She is and will remain an inspiration for documentarians and political activists alike. 

© Julia Lasker (8/9/2023) FF2 Media



Read Lesley Coffin’s interview with Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang here.

Read Dayna Hagewood’s review of One Child Nation here.


Featured Photo: Filmmaker Nanfu Wang with her 2019 Phoenix Award at Film Festival Cologne on October 17, 2019. Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2A5HFYA.

Tags: Chinese-American filmmaker, documentary filmmaker, female documentary filmmaker, Hooligan Sparrow, In the Same Breath, Nanfu Wang, One Child Nation, one-child policy, Ye Haiyan

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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