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DOCUMENTARIES

What happened in China when government edict collided with family preferences

‘All About My Sisters’ looks back at personal cost of the one-child policy

From "All About My Sisters."deGenerate Collection at Icarus Films

With the Supreme Court hearing arguments on the constitutionality of Mississippi’s anti-abortion law, a case that might determine the fate of Roe v. Wade, Qiong Wang’s debut feature, “All About My Sisters,” takes on a particular relevance. An immersive look at how the filmmaker’s family dealt with an intimate intrusion into their lives by a despotic system, it demonstrates the consequences of government interference in citizens’ reproductive rights.

Wang’s sister Jin was born two years after the filmmaker, in the ‘90s, when China’s one-child policy to counter population growth was being strictly enforced. Like many other Chinese couples Qiong’s mother and father, Xiaoqing and Jianhua, wanted a son and after giving birth to two daughters, including the filmmaker, Xiaoqing got pregnant six more times in 10 years. The infants were all female and each was aborted. But Jin, the last of them, survived a botched, chemically induced miscarriage.

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At first the couple were torn about what to do. They tried hiding the baby but saw that it was impossible. Like an estimated 2 million other parents in China during this time, the Wangs abandoned their daughter, leaving her outside in an orange grove in the middle of winter. Despite being two months premature and covered with ulcers, Jin survived in the cold for a week until her grandmother compelled her aunt and uncle, who already had a son, to take in the infant and raise her as their own.

From "All About My Sisters."deGenerate Collection at Icarus Films

“She was a tough baby,” Jianhua remarks ruefully.

That toughness is evident in Jin when she is interviewed. When Qiong tells Jin that she is making the movie to learn what she went through as a child Jin replies, “I went through all kinds of stuff; why didn’t you film me then?” When Qiong joins Jin as she works planting rice seedlings Jin tells her how people would ask how she felt laboring on a farm while her two sisters were having fun in the city. “Why abandon the third daughter and not the second?” she asks at one point. The mother of a toddler herself, Jin sometimes seems cold and callous in handling her little boy. “He’s been crying for an hour,” she says trying to quiet the child. “It’s so annoying. Beating him didn’t help at all.”

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Perhaps she’s kidding – she is never seen actually mistreating the boy. Though the film is “all about her sisters,” Qiong doesn’t penetrate Jin’s enigmatic, aloof mien. Is Jin resentful? Forgiving? Indifferent? (The oldest sister, Li, is a bit of a mystery, too – Qiong can’t understand her blithe determination to abort her baby if it’s a girl.) Given that until they were teenagers Qiong thought Jin was her cousin, this failure of understanding is not surprising.

Li Wang (left) nurses her infant son, Wenjie Zheng, while sitting with her sister Jin Zhou.deGenerate Collection at Icarus Films

For over seven years Qiong filmed her sisters, her parents, her aunts and uncles, and others to solve the mystery, and the viewer also has to piece the story together. Investigating scenes from the past Qiong and her parents visit the orange grove where Jin had been abandoned; all that remains are piles of decayed fruit. She talks with an uncle who had been a village elder in the ‘90s and was in charge of enforcing the one-child policy. He describes how women who violated the law underwent enforced sterilization and how families’ livestock was taken away and their homes destroyed. Did he do such things, too? Qiong asks her uncle. He admits he did. “It was our duty,” he says. “We had quotas.”

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At nearly three hours, Qiong’s film is not as focused or as driven as “One Child Nation” (2019), the documentary by Nanfu Wang (no relation) about her family’s experience during the period of the one-child policy. But this film possesses the intermittent, cumulative power of family dynamics and touches on the undercurrent of secrets and lies that have been observed over an extended period. It relates the conflicting stories and emotions of complex and flawed people whose lives have been violated by a government out of control.

“All About My Sisters” streams on OVID.tv, beginning Dec. 7. Go to search.ovid.tv/cart/coming_soon.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.