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ONE CHILD NATION

Producer: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang, Christoph Jorg, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements and Carolyn Hepburn
Director: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: Amazon Studios

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The Chinese government continues to insist that its “one-child” policy, which was on the books from 1979 to 2015, was a success, and in purely numeral terms it was. As this documentary by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang notes, it did “solve” a perceived problem of overpopulation due to a birth rate that, it was believed, threatened the country’s socio-economic future by preventing an estimated 300,000-400,000 births.

But the film also shows that the consequences were horrifying, in terms of brutal enforcement and the emotional devastation it inflicted. “One Child Nation” is a sobering indictment of the harm a government can do to its people when it attempts to engineer social policy.

Wang, who co-directed the film with Zhang as well as shooting it in collaboration with Yuanchen Liu and then editing the footage to its present eighty-five minute running-time, was born to a village family while the policy was in force, but her parents received an exemption: they could have a second child, but only with a five-year interval between the two. When her younger brother was born, he became the apple of their parents’ eyes, chosen to continue school while Wang was sent to work. She later emigrated to the United States and became a mother herself, inspiring her to undertake this, her first film, from a sense of personal need.

In a way Wang was fortunate. Couples wanted their one child to be a male who would carry on the family name, so often female infants were simply abandoned, to be picked up by strangers or left simply to die. Some were “collected” by traffickers who sold them to orphanages, which then profited by putting them up for adoption abroad. Other children were simply seized from rural families as the equivalent of fines, and then offered to prospective adoptive parents outside the country as orphans—at a hefty price, of course.

Even that procedure, as unsavory as it might seem, was relatively benign compared to what was happening elsewhere. Forced sterilization and abortion was commonplace, sometimes through compliance prodded by a vast propaganda program, but often by compulsion of a far more physical kind. The number of victims, both the dead and the sad survivors, is simply incalculable.

Wang begins her investigation with her own family, interviewing her mother (who still believes that cannibalism would have occurred in China had the policy not been imposed by the party) and brother, who still feels guilty about how he was preferred over her. She talks to an uncle who weeps remembering the daughter he abandoned in the market, only to watch her die, and an aunt whose daughter was given up for adoption.

She then moves to a wider circle of locals, like the village head who presided—reluctantly, he says—in enforcement, and “public health” workers who actually performed operations, like a midwife who estimates she performed tens of thousands of sterilizations and abortions over the thirty-year period and who, under advice from a priest, now aids couples dealing with problems of infertility in order to make amends.

Wang continues her outward reach, interviewing traffickers who were punished for taking advantage of the policy and a journalist named Jiaoming Pang, now residing in Hong Kong, who left the mainland when his investigations revealed the horrors which the one-child policy caused. (Given the current state of affairs in Hong Kong, he might have to flee again before long.) Viewers should be warned that his photographs of abandoned fetuses left in landfills are deeply disturbing.

Having taken viewers down what might be described the circles of a man-made hell, Wang offers a measure of solace by discussing the work of American Brian and Long Lan Stuy, adoptive parents themselves, who have developed a database to try to reunite Chinese adoptees with their biological families. Using it she tries to find her aunt’s daughter, and in another case an adoptee reconnects with her twin sister in China.

Zhang also notes the replacement in 2015 of the one-child policy with another that prescribing two as the “perfect” number, and gives examples of the new propaganda campaign to promote the idea—made necessary by the reality that there are now simply too few young people to care for the country’s aging population—ironically, a result of the previous policy. Can the failure of one experiment in social engineering be corrected by another? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, this shattering documentary is hard to watch and hard to forget.

HONEYLAND

Producer: Ljubomir Stefanov and Atanas Georgiev
Director: Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska
Writer: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam and Mustafa Sam
Stars: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam and Mustafa Sam
Studio: Neon

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It’s a fortuitous occurrence when a documentary project naturally develops a powerful dramatic arc as it proceeds. That seems to have been the case with Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s “Honeyland,” a remarkable portrait of a Balkan beekeeper that comes gradually to depict the demise of her way of life as it unfolded over the three years of filming.

When we first encounter Hatidze Muratova, she is clambering up a steep mountainside to remove a slab of stone and reach a hive from which she carefully extracts the comb and a measure of its honey. The vertiginous camerawork of Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma is breathtakingly beautiful.

It remains so as she comes home to her little stone house where she cares for her ill eighty-five year old mother Nazife. It’s a place devoid of modern conveniences like running water and electricity, and apart from the dog and cat that live with the two women, there is no one nearby—apart from the hive that Hatidze keeps behind a stone in the outer wall. As she will explain later, when she takes her honey to the Macedonian capital of Skopje to sell to buyers in the open markets and purchase odds and ends—like hair dye and a fan for her mother (as well as, presumably, batteries for her radio at home)—all the Albanians, and her fellow Turks, have left the rocky, mountainous region where she and her mother live.

The scenes in the home between Hatidze and Nazife have a genuine air; the daughter must shout, sometimes in exasperation, for the mother, who is facially impaired and bedridden, to hear her, and the two vacillate between bickering and expressions of mutual concern. Here again the cameramen do outstanding work, creating visuals that are luminous and painterly in the candlelight.

Their isolation is shattered one morning when Hussein and Ljutvie Sam, along with their brood of children, noisily arrive in a decrepit caravan to take up residence in an abandoned farm nearby. Hussein will raise cattle there, and plant corn to feed them with, helped by his wife and older sons. Hatidze welcomes them and is affectionate toward the kids.

Hussein notices her beekeeping activities and is pleasantly surprised by the price she receives for her honey. Seeing it as a possible source of income himself, he attempts to follow her lead, bringing in the necessary boxes to establish hives in. But she warns him that the proper way to extract the honey is to “take half, leave half”—because if the bees find it all gone, they will begin to attack one another, along with nearby hives like hers.

Hussein does not listen, of course. Desperate for money and taking a more hardheaded capitalist approach under prodding from a buyer who wants the product especially after his cows fall ill, he exhausts his hives, and his bees become predatory, attacking Hatidze’s. Meanwhile his relationships with his wife and boys deteriorate, encouraging his eldest son, Mustafa, to gravitate toward Hatidze.

As her fortunes decline, Hatidze becomes more introspective, contemplating what her life might have been had she married and had children. She asks Nazife why suitors for her hand had been turned away (her mother places the blame on her father), and confides to Mustafa her regret that she never had a son like him. In the end the Sams move away, their experiment at ranching a failure, and Hatidze is left totally alone, her way of life severely damaged if not destroyed.

“Honeyland” would be a depressing experience were it not for Hatidze’s strength and unwillingness to bend to misfortune. She remains an indomitable figure even at the close. Nor is Hussein portrayed as a mere villain. True, he berates his wife as lazy, and pushes his sons very hard, laughing when they’re stung by the bees. But he emerges as a man simply trying to get by, and feed his family, in a hard, unforgiving world.

With images that are realistic but also frequently enthralling (so much so that one wonders whether some have been staged), the film has been edited from a great mass of footage—four hundred hours in all—to a mere eighty-five minutes by co-producer Atanas Georgiev. His cut presents a beautifully proportioned cameo of the changes the arrival of the Sams brings to Hatidze’s life, based as it is on a tradition that is inevitably coming to an end. In the process it has broader implications, calling attention to ecological factors that threaten insects as well as humans.

At the same time, one wonders what might be found in the hundreds of additional hours the filmmakers shot. One suspects that much of the context to the story told here has been jettisoned in favor of dramatic simplicity, and that “Honeyland” might have been of epic rather than vignette length. But even as one ponders what might have been left out, one should be thankful for what Stefanov and Kotevska have achieved: a moving, intimate portrayal of a strong woman whose traditional mode of life, played out in harmony with nature, is imperiled by circumstances she cannot control.