When Nanfu Wang was still a graduate student at NYU film school, she returned to China – where she was born and lived until her mid-twenties – to film human rights activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow), as she was chased and harassed across China by uniformed and secret police alike. Wang herself became a target of government officials trying to halt Haiyan’s campaign to expose how rapists hide behind loopholes in the country’s prostitution laws.
The risks Wang took to secretly shoot “Hooligan Sparrow” became part of the film. When it was shortlisted for Best Documentary at the 2017 Oscars, her family back in China started receiving threatening phone calls and visits from government officials instructing them to tell Wang she needed to stop doing interviews and talking about the issues in the film, which was gaining a higher profile and starting to stream on Netflix.
“After ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ was released, I did not try to go back to China,” said Wang in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It was uncertain whether I could even go back.”
She finally made it back last February, when Wang returned to her small village hometown. She wanted to introduce her family to her newborn son, whose birth had also prompted her to want to explore China’s One Child Policy, which she grew up under and had played a large role in her life.
“The first trip was nerve-wracking,” said Wang. “Luckily, when we were at customs, nothing happened. But during that trip it was just me, my husband and our child.”
The only filming Wang did on that first trip for “One Child Nation,” which premiered to rave reviews last week at the Sundance Film Festival, was with her family and those she knew inside the village. Since her presence in China didn’t seem to register with the government, Wang returned in April to do more filming, but not without an elaborate emergency plan and co-director Jialing Zhang – a friend from NYU, who was then living in China – as a safety precaution.
“Jialing would be communicating with the drivers or my interview subjects, or anybody that I needed contact from the ground,” said Wang. “So I didn’t leave any trace of communication that I was having with people that would’ve been easy to monitor.”
The assumption was that some of Wang and Zhang’s more outspoken interview subjects were already being surveilled by the government. The two filmmakers would communicate with each other through encrypted text messages and track each other closely on GPS while filming. If each was out of touch for more than two hours, the other would activate an emergency plan that involved contacting support outside of the country.
As Wang and Zhang probed further into the dark history of China’s Old Child Policy, which the government ended in 2015, they learned about the extent to which babies – specifically female, second child, or twin babies – were discarded, which human traffickers would take advantage of as many cashed in on the lucrative international adoption network.
Wang knew from “Hooligan Sparrow” to stay off trains, since public transportation was where scrutiny from the police was far more likely. When filming a former trafficker, who was demonstrating how he transported babies on a 12-hour train ride from Guangdong to Hunan Province, Wang faced a real dilemma.
“We hired drivers, who we know, to drive around and we never stayed in the hotels, but when we needed to film that trip, the train ride, I had to make a decision whether to go or not,” said Wang. “Eventually Jialing and I discussed it and I said, ‘It was really important for the film.’ If I don’t get to see this myself, I would have no way of understanding how he trafficked the babies and what the operation was like. So I went with him. We boarded the train around midnight. I was very nervous because it was the first time I [was] exposing myself.”
A officer did drill Wang with questions and told her to stop filming with her DSLR camera, which looks like a still photo camera. Later, after checking her ID, he would stare at her and eventually sat next to her. Wang, nervous, exited the train in the middle of the night, far from her destination. Zhang, tracking her on GPS, struggled to reroute their driver, who was trailing alongside the path of the train, to meet Wang. She would spend a better part of the unsettling evening looking over her shoulder in the empty streets before eventually finding her with the driver.
“There were other times, like when I was filming later in in my village, and I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but it got reported to the county officials,” said Wang. “I was putting together the tripod, when two officials came from the county demanding me to delete the footage.”
In the village, where Wang’s family is well-known, officials were never too aggressive with her equipment and never deleted the footage themselves. Yet Wang worries about her family might not be quite as protected as her new film starts to get seen.
“One thing that concerns [me] definitely was how this would impact my family,” said Wang. “Because unlike ‘Hooligan Sparrow,’ my family’s faces are in this film.”