An adult holds a baby in their arms, leaning over them to stare down into their eyes. The baby looks back up at them.

Issue 003 Fall 2021 Interviews

Present Continuous

An Interview with Wang Qiong

by Abby Sun

All About My Sisters (2021), dir. Wang Qiong. Film stills courtesy of Wang Qiong.


Despite decades of defiance, pushback, and uneven enforcement, the Chinese Communist Party’s one-child policy continues to dominate Western depictions of mainland China as a sign of Chinese compliance with authoritarian rule. One recent example is Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation (2019), a film that chillingly traces the white savior American understanding of the policy to the rise of the international adoption industry but frustrates in its continued centering of white American audiences. I’ve found that it can be easy for us to accept that oppositional narratives from within China will never circulate outside the country because of its repressive environment, which is real and consequential. But this acceptance is also a failure of our imagination.


Standing in contrast is Wang Qiong’s All About My Sisters (2021)—a longitudinal reverberation of the one-child policy across three generations of the filmmaker’s family. The film combines interviews of Wang’s family members, her sisters’ and mother’s doctors, and state-employed enforcers of the one-child policy with observational footage filmed over seven years. The central figure in the film is Wang’s younger sister, Jin, who survived a lethal medical injection and abandonment by their parents before being raised by their uncle as his own child. Never voyeuristic and endlessly constructing layers of meaning, the film premiered at the June 2021 edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

In addition to the personal story at its heart, the film’s emphasis on the value of oral testimony can be traced back to Wang’s involvement in the first participatory documentary nonprofit in China. This organization, the IFChina Original Studio Participatory Documentary Center, was cofounded by Jian Yi, Douglas Xiao, and Eva Song in 2009. IFChina trains filmmakers to conduct oral history interviews about topics both ordinary and taboo, reaching the migrant workers, rural residents, women, and children who live in and around its headquarters of Ji’an, in the landlocked Jianxi province of central China.

I admire participatory filmmaking projects like IFChina for creating an experimental counter-archive, especially in a country where so much of mainstream media is state sponsored. But we usually don’t hear about how people who participate in them are then empowered to tell and collect their own stories. For Wang Qiong, IFChina provided not only a conceptual foundation for her documentary work but also introductions to English-speaking filmmakers and industry professionals to bolster her scholarship applications for an MFA program in the US, where she finished editing All About My Sisters. In our conversation, Wang explains the catalytic effect of participatory documentary, where it’s led her since, and why her filmmaking is a practice of durational mediation.


Two adults sit at a cafe. One person at the left is also carrying a baby who they are feeding. The person on the right leans their head on their hand against a table, looking bored.
All About My Sisters (2021), dir. Wang Qiong. Film stills courtesy of Wang Qiong.

Abby Sun: How did you learn about IFChina’s work, and how is it related to All About My Sisters?

Wang Qiong: In my second or third year of undergrad studying broadcast journalism and television, I was unhappy with the classes I was taking. The professors taught us how to use the camera, how to zoom in, zoom out, and how to record, how to edit—but not the reason to film. Then I was introduced by a friend to IFChina. When I got there, I saw people doing documentary photography or films, which was really new to me. One of the projects was called Story of Birth, and the idea was for literally everybody around the local community, or even further—people from different cities or different countries—to participate. I invited everybody I knew to interview their mothers about their birth story, and of course, I also participated in this project.      

I took a [digital video] camera back home and interviewed my mother. I was surprised that she gave me so much information about the process of giving birth to me. She also talked about her other pregnancies, how hard it was for her to have my younger brother, and how hard it was for her to hide from the officials who were in charge of the one-child policy. Everything my mother spoke about I thought about for a long time. Then my older sister, Wang Li, sent me a message about her plan to abort the baby she was pregnant with if it was a girl. I thought about my mother’s story and about my younger sister, Jin, whose story was known openly in my family. At that point, I decided to make a film about my own family. You could say it was inspired by IFChina’s Story of Birth. 

 

AS: I thought a lot about images and self-representation while watching All About My Sisters. Many of the conversations and family dinners take place in the lobby of your parents’ photo studio. In the background of these scenes there are photos behind you, and they’re doubling as both idealized family portraits but also advertisements for the family business. What did your parents understand of your documentary project? Their life also revolves around making images, but in this idealized way, right? 

WQ: My parents understood that I was recording their activities, but they didn’t really understand what I was doing. They didn’t really know what documentary is and why people did that. They take photos as a livelihood, to make money, but I record for nothing. But regarding this story of the family photo studio inside the film, my father is super proud of his expertise in photographing family portraits. He even tried to teach me how to take a good family portrait—when everyone is in the studio and there’s a cameraman and everything is prepared, like a performance: smile and your family shows happiness and harmony. You can even do a second take if the first smile doesn’t look good. So there is a self-censorship among people inside this system, about how they want to be seen and remembered, which is also human nature. To some extent, I think the photo shop is a metaphor for China as a country. Documentary is something that I want to do to update what my father was doing—instructing people to show their best faces in front of the camera. For me, I want to see the complexity beyond the performance. 

 

The camera, for me, is an encouragement to ask a question.

 

AS: The photo studio kind of engulfs everyone’s lives, including that of Jin, when your parents help her and her husband out by helping them start their own shop. You introduce Jin to the idea of documentary film—at the end of All About My Sisters, some of the footage is filmed by her. You also use a scene as a sort of bookend, when the camera swaps from your hands to hers. But the way it’s used makes it clear that Jin’s participation in the project is not one that leads to an easy resolution. Why was it important to you to have Jin holding your camera and to use these recordings in your film?

WQ: The camera, for me, is an encouragement to ask a question. In Chinese families, people don’t really like to sit down and have a serious conversation about the past. A camera gave me a reason, power, and encouragement to start to ask questions. So when I offer the camera to Jin, it is because I want to share this encouragement, because I wanted her to start asking questions too. I want her to question me, which is why the question she asked me is at the beginning of All About My Sisters: “Why are you making the film?” That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that switching the camera to Jin is a form of intimacy. When I was a child, I always felt that we were so different, as I have more than Jin has. She lives in the village, she has to labor in the fields, whereas I had nice clothes and everything was fancier in the city. From when I was a child, I wanted to share everything I had with her. So when I have the camera and its power, I want her to have it too. Although she took over the camera, she didn’t make a film. She didn’t ask many questions like I did, but she did accept one of the most important things in my life.

 

AS: Have you talked to your dad about how you made a family portrait as well?

WQ: I told my parents my intention of making this project is to mediate understanding between Jin and them, but I’m not sure they understand. I won’t show this film to them for ten or twenty years, because the relationship between my parents and Jin is more important than the film. There are things that Jin complained about my parents in the film, and then there are some things that my parents and my older sister Li complained about Jin, separately. If I show this now, I’m afraid that they will deliberately misunderstand. I’m afraid to destroy the improvements that I have made to mediate their relationship, because they’re much better than before.


Two faces are pressed closely together, one is a baby and the other appears to be an adult. The adult has their eyes closed.
All About My Sisters (2021), dir. Wang Qiong. Film stills courtesy of Wang Qiong.

AS: All About My Sisters is the first part of a tetralogy that you will spend a decade making, following the Buddhist cycle of life. What’s up with this idea, and why is it so important to you to spend a long time on this series?

WQ: This idea has been in my mind for many years, almost since the beginning of making All About My Sisters—the forces of birth, death, illness, and aging. We call it 四苦1. In Buddhism it is the four stages of life that none of us can avoid. I’m a Buddhist and I’m very interested in how people deal with things during every state. I also feel that when I’m making these films, I’m meeting people who can teach me how to face my own life. I will be satisfied if I can finish this within my life, before I die.

 

AS: I have an urge to classify your film as part of a current feminist resistance to official state, Beijing-run narratives of nationalist fervor. What do you think of this idea of making films that are part of a counter-narrative and part of a larger feminist movement?

WQ: I would say filmmaking, to me, is giving a different voice than the mainstream [or] governed narrative. It’s a reflection of what was said and what is being said, a discovery of what was not said and what is being silenced. An analogy that we brought up before is what photography means to my father versus what it means to me. It’s a secret freedom that I use to learn more about the incomplete, inaccurate history and present.

I don’t feel my film or I belong to, or are part of, any movement. On the contrary, [we] belong to nowhere, though I want to have a sense of belonging. But that is always absent in my life. However, I believe there are connections between All About My Sisters and other films regarding the topics it touches upon. To me, making this film is a personal question-asking experience. But since it is completed and published, to a certain extent, my film became an independent life that may have conversations with other films out of my control, which I think is beautiful. 


1. Si ku, or four sufferings.