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DOC10 2019 Preview: Hail Satan?, One Child Nation and Seven More Highlights

One of the most exciting cinematic events in the Windy City is upon us, the Chicago Media Project’s DOC10 Film Festival, kicking off Thursday, April 11th, and running through Sunday, April 14th, at the Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln Ave. Now in its fourth year, this impeccably curated marathon of nonfiction marvels has introduced me to many of my most cherished films in recent memory, several of which ended up on my Best of the Year lists, including Nanfu Wang’s “Hooligan Sparrow,” Albert Maysles’ “In Transit,” Eugene Jarecki’s “The King,” Theo Anthony’s “Rat Film,” Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s “Sonita,” Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and perhaps my personal favorite, Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap.” The latest edition of DOC10 promises to be every bit as strong as its predecessors, featuring such enticing titles as Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s Sundance prize-winner, “American Factory,” about the conflict-laden partnership between Chinese and American factory workers. For my annual preview piece, I had the opportunity to screen nine of this year’s selections in advance, the first of which instantly emerged as a surefire contender for my eventual list ranking the Top 10 Films of 2019.

There is tremendous value in any movie that can teach us something about ourselves, and my major takeaway from Penny Lane’s “Hail Satan?” is the revelation that I may be, in fact, a Satanist at heart. Like many members of The Satanic Temple, the subversive religious/activist group observed by Lane’s droll lens, I was an ardent follower of Christian values until my faith became disillusioned by the limitations of God’s grace. Everyone’s “F—k this!” moment arrives in a different form, and for one member of the unholy congregation interviewed here, it occurred when he was informed that Gandhi, founder of nonviolent activism, would go to hell because he didn’t worship Jesus. Hence, the fallen churchgoer decided to join the aforementioned Temple founded in 2013 as a separate organization from the apolitical Church of Satan, which originated back in 1966. 

What links these disparate groups is their belief in Satan not as a supreme being but as a symbol for those who refuse to conform to the dominant patriarchy. When compared to the Ten Commandments, the seven tenants of The Satanic Temple are infinitely more appealing (act with empathy, believe in science), not to mention more critical as the planet teeters on the brink of environmental catastrophe. Rather than embrace our impending doom by waiting for the Second Coming to arrive, the Temple aims to conjure heaven on earth by championing religious pluralism over fanaticism, utilizing weapons of satire to enlighten a nation backsliding into Christian supremacy. 

Lane brilliantly examines how “one nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance around the time that Billy Graham was demonizing communists and Paramount Pictures was shipping Ten Commandments plaques as a promotional stunt for their new Charlton Heston vehicle—the same ones that are currently being placed in front of government institutions, a brazen attempt to demolish the separation between church and state while perpetuating the myth that America is a Christian nation. It’s only fitting that the producers of “God’s Not Dead 2” funded the reinstatement of one such monument after it was mowed down by a disgruntled Christian, no less. Of course, the Temple received the brunt of the blame for insisting that a statue of occult deity Baphomet be erected next to every public plaque espousing one particular religion’s law, not for reasons of evangelism, as noted by Temple spokesman Luciean Greaves, but to teach the United States a civics lesson. 

The editing by Amy Foote and the incredibly prolific Aaron Wickenden has the cathartic jolt of vintage Michael Moore trolling, as Satanists, their tongues placed devoutly in their cheeks, deliberately provoke their godly opposition into revealing their worst selves. As a rebuke to the Westboro Baptist Church’s grotesque anti-LGBTQIA protests at funerals, the Temple has same sex couples make out over the grave of Fred Phelps’ mother, thereby supposedly turning her gay in the afterlife. By removing the stigma of shame from their sexuality, the Satanists’ lifestyle is antithetical to the repression preached by a church whose claims of moral superiority are forever invalidated by their history of abuse. Chris Marker put it best in his 1983 masterwork, “Sans Soleil,” when he said, “Censorship is not the mutilation of the show, it IS the show. The code is the message. It points to the absolute by hiding it. That’s what religions have always done.”

Hail Satan?” screens Saturday, April 13th, at 9:30pm with director Penny Lane in attendance.

Michael Moore may not be a Satanist himself, but he is most certainly a disciple of Mike Wallace, the notorious “60 Minutes” interviewer profiled in Tel Aviv-born director Avi Belkin’s remarkably even-handed and utterly mesmerizing new movie. Without relying on a narrator, Belkin enables the words of his subjects to speak for themselves in “Mike Wallace Is Here,” causing the titular news icon to emerge as no less complex or towering a figure as Charles Foster Kane. He comes across simultaneously as a heroic journalist determined to bring corrupt individuals and corporations to justice, an attention-seeking ass who must prove he’s more than a commercial shill by asking argumentative questions even when the topic doesn’t call for it, and a dramatist verging on sensationalism, as evidenced by the tight close-ups and hard-hitting questions that made his first hosting gig on “Night Beat” a smash. 

Casting himself as the hero while accentuating the beads of sweat forming on the brow of his unlucky guest, Wallace approached his on-air chats as if they were police interrogations. Rather than massage the ego of his famous interviewees, he forced them to respond to nasty character attacks, at times delivered with a dose of unnecessary rudeness. Yet when Watergate broke in the early years of “60 Minutes,” Wallace single-handedly caused the show’s ratings to skyrocket by drawing on his ties in the Nixon administration to land one-and-one exclusives that ensured the guilt would be viewed up close and personal.

The ticking clock that punctuates each segment on “60 Minutes” with an added sense of urgency operates at the rhythm to which Wallace’s life tirelessly marched. His compulsion to make the most of his days was intensified by the sudden death of his young son, Peter, and in a heartrending chat with his longtime co-anchor, Morley Safer, Wallace opens up for the first time about his suicide attempt, which occurred during the years when General William Westmoreland attempted to sue him over his unflattering inquiries. No footage from Lumet’s “Network” is needed in order for the parallels between Wallace and Howard Beale to be made clear—both desired to cut through the B.S. by illuminating the truth, turning them into overnight ratings draws for moguls more concerned with star power than substance. 

Bill O’Reilly insists that his own on-air bullying was directly inspired by Wallace’s temperament, yet there’s no question the revered media personality, who lived to 93, outclassed the disgraced Fox News pest on every level, as witnessed by his countless prophetic exchanges with history-makers like Donald Trump. Though the future president, in his late 30s, voices no interest in politics, he changes his tune dramatically when Wallace unearths Trump’s statement that he could negotiate an arms control agreement with the Soviets. There are echoes of Gabriel Byrne’s psychiatrist on HBO’s “In Treatment” in how Wallace asks his subjects the very questions he refuses to answer about himself. Hats off to Belkin’s perceptive editor, Billy McMillan, for selecting interview excerpts from legends like Rod Serling or Bette Davis to illuminate certain truths about Wallace, suggesting how the mutual recognition of one’s shared experience is part of what makes this sort of conversation so addictive.

Mike Wallace Is Here” screens Friday, April 12th, at 7:15pm with director Avi Belkin participating in a Q&A via Skype.

As director, cinematographer and editor of “Midnight Family,” Luke Lorentzen has served up a knockout of a sophomore feature effort. Following the daily routines of the Ochoa family, which typically veers from causal monotony to life-or-death intensity in the matter of a heartbeat, the film had me holding my breath for sizable portions of its running time. When the Ochoas must zoom through traffic in their private ambulance to the scene of an accident, barking at pedestrians through their speakers, Lorentzen places his camera in both directions on the dashboard, and the resulting footage is as gripping as any action sequence you can name. Since Mexico City has less than 45 ambulances to serve its population numbering around nine million, the for-profit business of transporting patients to hospitals is one that the Ochoas are only too eager to embrace. 

16-year-old Juan, the most talkative EMT of the family, admits that he enjoys the thrill of his job. Though he doesn’t like to see people get hurt, he stresses that a degree of excitement is crucial for his line of work, considering how strenuous it can become on a busy night. Lorentzen never sugar-coats the personalities of his subjects, nor does he attempt to conceal his presence, as Juan takes pleasure in razzing family members before the lens. A little more context regarding the corruption of the “new administration” and its enabling of a local police force seeking bribes would’ve been welcome, yet also may have taken away from the picture’s intimate perspective.

Most unsettling is the way in which the Ochoas drag race their competition at top speeds, potentially causing a fatality themselves on their way to land another customer. Once they arrive at the unfortunate site, however, any petty squabbles or juvenile fixations instantly evaporate, as the family exhibits a bedside manner that is the very definition of professional. For me, the heart of the film is contained within the moment when the Ochoas tend to 18-year-old Andrea, the victim of a crushing headbutt from her boyfriend who subsequently fled from the scene. She’s worried about the expense of fixing her broken nose, and initially avoids giving the family the number for her parents, until Fer—the father of the clan—satisfies her request for a hug so that she’ll be able to catch her breath. Meanwhile, Juan telephones her mother to calmly explain the situation, displaying the maturity of a man several times his age. 

Lorentzen maintains a respectful distance from the action, keeping his focus fixed on the strength of the Ochoas rather than the vulnerability of their patients. One interaction late in the film is so painful that it doesn’t even end up on camera, as I found myself wincing at the despair in the subjects’ voices. Like many of the protagonists highlighted at DOC10 this year, this brave family is comprised of outsiders filling the void of an inadequate establishment unfit to serve the people. Even with endless road bumps on the imminent horizon, these real-life superheroes keep their collective foot planted on the gas. 

Midnight Family” screens Friday, April 12th, at 9:30pm with director Luke Lorentzen and producer Kellen Quinn in attendance, as well as producer Elena Fortes via Skype.

Winner of two major accolades in the NEXT section of the Sundance Film Festival, Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s “The Infiltrators” is reminiscent of last year’s under-seen gem, “American Animals,” in how it blurs the line between narrative and documentary while incorporating genre tropes into the nonfiction medium. Rather than follow the formula of a heist flick, the film occasionally takes the form of a prison break thriller, as members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance embark on a mission to penetrate the walls of the Broward Detention Center, where undocumented immigrants are held hostage for years on end. A chilling overhead shot views the inhabitants wandering about their outdoor cage in orange jumpsuits, so close to freedom and yet stamped down into the earth. 

The Dreamers who head the NIYA aim to turn themselves into Broward so that they can work within the system in order to defy it, ultimately leading to the freedom of the wrongfully incarcerated. Though “The Infiltrators” isn’t nearly as stylish as “American Animals,” and is somewhat more convoluted, it at least has the benefit of having subjects that are much more sympathetic. Most compelling of all is Viridiana Martinez, the young NIYA member who practices what she’ll say to Border Patrol as if rehearsing for a school play, while her partner-turned-director Mohammad Abdollahi encourages her to maintain a “natural desperation.” It’s in these moments where the story most effectively coalesces with Ibarra and Rivera’s self-aware style. 

Since so much of the action occurs within Broward’s forbidden walls, the filmmakers resort to staging scenes between the inmates and juxtaposing them with real footage of the people working on the outside. When toggling from an actual subject to their fictional counterpart, the actor’s name will flash on the screen, a touch that’s a bit excessive since the recreations are easy to decipher from the other footage. In fact, the film’s nagging problem is that its conflicting styles never fully gel. The actors’ behavior registers as noticeably stilted and bland when contrasted with the actual subjects, whose flubs and triumphs occurring in real time make for much more suspenseful viewing than sequences shot and blocked like a TV movie. 

The juxtaposition of these approaches constantly took me out of the film, yet in terms of visualizing the story, the actors do a solid job of filling the blanks, while detailing how to navigate an inherently corrupt system, such as how to go about obtaining more visitors. The most seamless illusion occurs when Abdollahi converses with one of the inmates—voiced by an actor—on the phone. Less successful is the moment when an actor is made to flap his gums to audio so murky it’s incoherent, though that misstep is thankfully a fleeting one. What makes this DOC10 screening worth attending, above all, is the fact that all proceeds of its ticket sales will go to supporting the family of its subject, Claudio Rojas, whose recent deportation is a distressing end coda to the film’s final, jarring cut to black.  

The Infiltrators” screens Sunday, April 14th, at 4:30pm with the following in attendance: director Alex Rivera; Aneesha Gandhi, Managing Attorney at National Immigrant Justice; and Aarón Siebert-Llera, Immigrant Rights Attorney at ACLU.

Set to provide a rousing, “RBG”-esque opener for this year’s DOC10 is Rachel Lears’ “Knock Down the House,” a Netflix film purporting to be about four grassroots contenders in the 2018 congressional election, yet it’s not long before the screen time quickly prioritizes the clear rising star among the candidates. There’s no denying the megawatt charisma, bracing intellect and revitalizing optimism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected Representative of New York’s 14th district, and has never ceased in her outspoken support of environmental reform. Put a camera on her and she is an instant star, delivering fiery speeches from the House floor designed to shame the moneyed interests that have turned America into an oligarchy, shredding any trace of democracy while shutting out the voices of the electorate. 

Lears begins the film by showing Ocasio-Cortez at her former, oft-referenced waitressing gig, and concludes with the precise moment when the wildly publicized underdog realized that she won on election night. It’s impossible to watch this scene without getting a lump in your throat, and the same is true of the scene that follows it, as Ocasio-Cortez delivers a tearful monologue about her late father—while seated in front of the Capitol Building—that, in a narrative feature, could’ve easily earned her an Oscar. She is a politician in the true mold of our celebrity culture, with a massive social media following and two PACs—namely Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, both featured here—in her corner, and though the chief aim of the film is uplift, I couldn’t help being wracked with anxiety.

With charges of campaign finance law violation recently surfacing against her, courtesy of intimidated conservatives, it’s worth pondering whether her criticism of America’s broken political machine is hypocritical. Would she still have won had she and the two PACs been more transparent about their spending? It may not amount to anything significant, and certainly pales in comparison to the importance of the issues Ocasio-Cortez is fighting for on a daily basis, but I can’t help feeling weary of anyone who appears too good to true, perhaps because I, as an American citizen, have been burned too many times before. Lears certainly succeeds in crafting a human portrait of the politician, celebrating her status as a woman of color from the Bronx, as she mops the floor with her opponent, Joe Crowley, who’s resigned to coasting toward an “all-but-certain victory,” as foolishly dubbed in the press. 

There’s a great scene where she compares her own campaign mailing, laying out specific bullet points of her beliefs, with Crowley’s much bigger and vaguer “strategist” ad. She’s unpopular not only with conservatives but establishment democrats, neither of which are above misogynistic putdowns (“Who’s that stupid woman?” exclaims a Crowley supporter). Conspicuously relegated to the sidelines are the three other candidates, most egregiously Amy Vilela of Nevada, whose crusade for better health care is fueled by the death of her 22-year-old daughter. She succumbed to a blood clot that doctors refused to treat after she couldn’t produce proof of her insurance. Consoling Vilela after her election night loss, Ocasio-Cortez says, “Sometimes it takes a hundred people to run in order for one to get through.” Let’s just hope the right one did. 

Knock Down the House” screens Thursday, April 11th at 7:30pm with director Rachel Lears, producer Sarah Olson and executive producer Stephanie Soechtig in attendance.

“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is,” Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg said to the world leaders in attendance at last December’s UN Climate Change COP24 Conference. “Even that burden you leave to us children.” Hearing words like that being uttered authoritatively by a 15-year-old should shake every adult to the core. Perhaps it had to take the mind of a girl with Asberger’s to envision with piercing clarity what we are all too comfortable in shielding from view. The existential dread that led the young Nobel Peace Prize nominee to found the global #FridaysForFuture movement reverberates through every frame of Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky and Nicholas de Pencier’s “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” an alarming and gravely beautiful illustration of our species’ legacy of destruction. 

Many of the shots lensed by de Pencier initially resemble abstract paintings until the camera pulls back far enough to reveal the humans, so small in stature and yet so catastrophic in their footprint. Alicia Vikander, sounding like a mournful angel, informs us that we are currently in the midst of the sixth great extinction, the casualties of which are sampled in a rather artless slo-mo montage similar to those shamelessly manipulative ads for animal shelters. Though Vikander’s on-the-nose narration acknowledges that mankind could escape its own self-inflicted fate by utilizing its “tenacity and skill” to come up with potential solutions—the germs of which we see in armed Kenyan nature preserves or London air raid shelters converted to grow fresh produce—the film is mainly concerned with the immense, seemingly irreversible effect we’ve had on the planet’s ecosystems.

A lot of these horrendous alterations have already been well-documented, and the film simply rubs our noses in it, such as the bleaching of our priceless coral reefs, the rising of our sea levels, and the unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere (an equally appropriate title may have been “Something’s Gotta Give”). Indeed, many of the film’s most awe-inspiring shots exemplify mankind’s tenacity in birthing god-like contraptions: the giant bucket wheel excavator gnashing away at a mountainside in Germany; Nigeria’s Redeemed Christian Church of God built to seat a congregation numbering one million; the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland that takes 20 minutes to get through by train (we view the whole trip in one dazzling shot not unlike the astronaut’s cosmic voyage in “2001”); or the astonishingly detailed carvings made from mammoth tusks that have been thawed out due to the permafrost. The Hong Kong carver says this material is preferable to the tusks of an elephant, since it won’t be long until they are no less a distant memory than the mammoths. 

By the end, the earth appears as ailing as the men of the cloth in Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and Schrader’s “First Reformed,” bewildered by forces of indifference beyond their control. Has there ever been a wake-up call as profound as Thunberg’s refrain, “Our house is on fire”?

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” screens Saturday, April 13th, at 1pm with directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier in attendance.

Festivalgoers in need of a pick-me-up after the bleakness of “The Human Epoch” should look no further than this year’s crowd-pleasing closing night selection, “The Biggest Little Farm,” in which filmmaker John Chester chronicles the eight-year odyssey taken by him and his wife, Molly, to build regenerative farmland in Moorpark, California, located an hour north of Los Angeles. Guiding their meticulous approach is the wisdom of biodynamic consultant Alan York, who instructs that the creation of microorganisms is essential in keeping life flowing. As charmed as I was by the Chesters at first sight, their film admittedly appears to have been cobbled together from plot threads that have already proven to work better as Emmy-winning short films, aired as part of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday. 

The first third especially moves at such a tight clip, it plays like the condensed season of an upcoming TLC series (think “My Big Fat Fabulous Farm”), with narration provided by Kevin Costner’s earnest farmer from “Field of Dreams” (“Everyone told us this was crazy,” he recalls, before revealing that “it all started with a promise we made to a dog”). Animated sequences evocative of Michael Sporn’s 1987 gem, “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile,” foreshadow the series of children’s books that the couple plans to launch next month, while the slo-mo closeups of birds and insects would fit snugly into a BBC special. What’s left on the cutting-room floor is an overarching sense of spontaneity, leaving the sentimental swells of Jeff Beal’s score to inform us how to feel as the director’s narration spells out the significance of things.

Even with all these reservations, the film still won me over in the end, revealing surprising depths as it progresses in part because it doesn’t shy away from showing the difficulties of such a monumental undertaking, however abridged they may be in the final cut. For those viewers aiming to craft their own sustainable ecosystem, which the couple began to do in the middle of a record drought, the film is chockfull of illuminating insights. Kids delighted by the first act should be forewarned that no animal is impervious to the appetites of nature, no matter how much the camera adores them. Chester himself starts to find discomfort in naming livestock that will eventually be eaten, and there’s a poignant moment where he sees the eyes of his beloved dog mirrored in the hollow stare of the ravenous coyote he’s just gunned down. 

Rather than eradicate the pests that seek to fracture the idealistic perfection of his manmade habitat at Apricot Lane Farms, he learns to take advantage of its self-perpetuating cycle, allowing nature to run its course. Unlike Timothy Treadwell, whose tragic romanticization of bears led to his own demise, the Chesters don’t turn a blind eye to the reality of their surroundings, embracing the bittersweet truths of life’s impermanence in a way that is both physically and spiritually fulfilling. With climate change directly causing the climactic wildfires that endanger the couple’s land, the way of life they have forged here stands as a vital beacon for the revitalization of mankind’s uncertain future.

The Biggest Little Farm” screens Sunday, April 14th, at 7pm with director John Chester participating in a Q&A via Skype along with Paul Gaynor of White Oak Church, Melissa Flynn of Green City Market and Jim Slama of FamilyFarmed in attendance.

A specialty of DOC10’s ace programmer Anthony Kaufman is his curation of films that are less concerned with narrative than they are with fully involving you in the sensory experiences of an unconventional life. Simon Lereng Wilmont’s “The Distant Barking of Dogs” is one of those miracles of nonfiction cinema where the camera seems to be hovering like a ghost in the presence of its subjects, never noticeably intruding on the action or drawing attention to itself, even as danger encroaches on the horizon. Set in the small Ukrainian village of Hnutove, located a mile from the front lines of a seemingly unending battle between government forces and pro-Russian separatists, the film centers on 10-year-old Oleg, an endearing soul with a face that appears to have been lifted from Norman Rockwell’s easel. 

With his parents both gone, he lives with his beloved grandmother, Alexandra, who insists on remaining in their longtime family home even as neighbors flee to safety and missiles threaten to obliterate them at any moment. Though Jarik, Oleg’s cousin and roughhousing companion, has moved out of town with his mother, he quickly returns to his grandmother’s side, feeling infinitely more secure in her arms. He also has no intention of returning to peers who bully him about his Russian accent. As Jarik’s mom chats with Alexandra, she describes the surreal nature of their predicament, replying, “I got lost in my dreams for a second,” a line that proves to have enormous resonance.

If Wilmont’s film consisted of written dialogue, it would contain one of my very favorite scripts of the year, portraying the richness of the fantasy world that the children utilize as a vital mode of escape. “I’ll only fart and it will make you fly into space!” Jarik declares to his cousin before they both dissolve into cathartic giggles. There are shades of Malick in Wilmont’s gorgeous cinematography, though he avoids the temptation to let the landscapes upstage the eloquent faces of his human protagonists. Even a sweet kid like Oleg is prone to exploring his curiosity with violence, since its animalistic rumblings are a commonplace occurrence. After being goaded by an older local kid into firing a gun, Oleg shoots at frogs in a well, creatures as entrapped as Hnutove’s remaining inhabitants. Alexandra is rightly horrified when her grandchild guiltily admits what he did, yet such behavior is only natural when living in unthinkable circumstances. 

The illusion of safety is what all parents and guardians desire to craft like a mental cocoon for their children, and this mighty grandma has gone to great lengths to block out the nightmares for Oleg and Jarik, from wallpapering the house with transporting images of tranquil forests to singing nightly lullabies as nearby explosions cause the walls to shudder. Yet she is also choosing to live in denial, staving off the inevitable, such as when she works all night to hide the fact that she cannot get her hands to stop shaking. In one painterly shot, Wilmont splits the frame in two, as the delighted boys bask in the blue glow of their TV, unaware of the agony endured by Alexandra, who sits on the bed next to their’s while illuminated by the stark light of a nearby room. It’s only a matter of time before the distant, bloodthirsty dogs are perched on their doorstep. 

The Distant Barking of Dogs” screens Sunday, April 14th, at 2pm with director Simon Lereng Wilmont interviewed via Skype by WBEZ’s Julian Hayda.

Among the definitive images of modern nonfiction cinema is that of Nanfu Wang, camera in hand, aiming her searing lens to capture forbidden truths that are guaranteed to enlighten us all. She was one of the great discoveries I made at the inaugural DOC10 festival, which featured her stunning directorial debut, “Hooligan Sparrow,” about the courageous Chinese activist Ye Haiyan. She followed that a year later with the equally impressive “I Am Another You,” where she turned her attention to the precarious nature of freedom in American society. Now she returns to China for her third triumph, “One Child Nation,” which just earned the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is already destined to be named among the year’s best films. 

Though I was initially caught off guard by the autobiographical nature of her work, which she narrates in first person while weaving her own story with that of her subject, I now believe this signature approach has not only enhanced each of her features exponentially, but stands as a rebuke to China’s prioritization of the collective over the individual. Wang is adamant in chronicling the personal toll of heartless policies, and in the case of her latest film, she explores the wide-ranging ramifications of her home country’s one-child policy launched in 1979 and enforced until 2015. Yes, the world is inarguably overpopulated, yet this law—like so much of the corruption logged in “Hooligan Sparrow”—is really a matter of insidious control, where family planning officials administer forced abortions while kidnapping “excess” children from their parents before selling them to orphanages for international adoption.

Having just brought new life into the world in the form of her baby son, an experience she explains was like “giving birth to her memories,” Wang allows her early days of motherhood to inform how she goes about studying the policy’s wicked game of manipulation, one that is dependent on its participants keeping their emotions detached. Her mother shares a devastating story of how she helped her brother abandon his daughter in the marketplace where she eventually died—her face covered in mosquito bites—so that he could try for a son, the prized goal for every parent to ensure the future of their family name. We see the aching sadness in the eyes of a teen, Shuangjie Zeng, who was separated from her twin sister currently being raised in America. As Wang asks Zeng whether she’s spoken to her sister about the possibility of visiting China, a sensitive topic that causes the girl to laugh uneasily, considering the resistance of adoptive parents to dig too deep into the past, the camera holds on her face as her smile falls, leaving us with an expression that tells us everything we need to know. 

One midwife wants to atone for the sins she committed by following orders, while another shows no remorse, arguing that she was fighting a “population war” and chuckling in bewilderment at the frenzied behavior of the women whose babies she helped destroy. Artist Peno Wang began photographing discarded fetuses after finding them strewn among piles of garbage, and echoes the filmmaker’s thoughts by noting, “Indoctrination destroys humanity.” Co-directed with Jialing Zhang, who has also earned acclaim for her own muckraking features, Nanfu Wang’s “One Child Nation” is as invaluable a document of truth as it is poetry of the highest order. Perhaps no shot better embodies the essence of Chinese society than that of children blissfully riding on a merry-go-round. As soon as one of them dares to step outside of the circular structure, they land face-first in the mud. 

One Child Nation” screens Saturday, April 13th, at 3:30pm with director Nanfu Wang participating in a Q&A via Skype.

For the full festival line-up or to purchase tickets, visit the official site of DOC10.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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