I recently watched the documentary China’s Lost Girls¸ with Lisa Ling. Ling followed American families as they traveled to China to adopt Chinese girls who were abandoned by their parents. Chinese parents give up daughters because of China’s policy that allows families only one child. Boys are more valued in China because they can carry on the family name and work for the family and thus, parents would rather have their one child to be a boy. If they get a girl, they may give her up and keep trying for a boy.
The main message of the documentary was that the one child policy that the Chinese government enforced is doing the Chinese people more harm than good. To get this point across, Ling interviewed many Chinese people, whose lives were affected by the policy, starting relatively small and showing the effects that that policy has on mothers and then moving on to showing the effects the policy has on society and the country as a whole. For example, Ling interviewed a mother who paid a large fine to keep the daughter she had after she already had a son. The mother said that when she was pregnant with her son, her husband told her that if she didn’t have a son, he would send her away. The documentary then moved on to interviewing a Chinese official in family planning who said that by 2020, there will be such a shortage of females that 40 million marriage-age males will not be able to find women to marry. This shortage could cause prostitution and abductions of women or even riots or uprisings. Ling then moved on to interviewing a detective who worked on finding women who had been abducted and sold as wives. Ling then interviewed a woman how had been sold as a wife who was then found and brought back home. She said that she was repeatedly raped and beaten if she tried to escape. She had a son who was not allowed to come back with her. All of these interviews work to show the negative effects that this policy has brought about to the Chinese people as well as the even worse problems they could cause in the future.
Once these negative effects were presented, the documentary reported on Chinese citizens’ thoughts on the policy. They said that they were ashamed and disgraced by the fact that they cannot take care of their own children. Instead they rely on people (such as American families who adopt Chinese girls) to raise their girls. They also worry that these adopted girls will not be proud of their country. All of this works to show the viewer how far-reaching the policy can be and how the consequences may outweigh the positive effects it could have on population control. By beginning to focus on mothers and families and then moving to larger issues such as a negative world view of China and the possibility of uprisings, the documentary was able to effectively show how dire the situation in China is and how more work needs to be done to raise awareness about the policy and its effects.
However, the documentary seemed to have a bit of a hidden agenda. All of the interviews that highlighted the negative effects of the policy were interspersed with footage of American couples traveling to Beijing to adopt a Chinese girl as well as interviews with young Chinese girls who had already been adopted by Americans. The girls talked about how lucky they were to be adopted and how they never could have the life they do if they had not come to America. The American couples who adopted these girls were portrayed almost in a saintly manner. They were looked at as being the only ones capable of saving the young abandoned girls and giving them a better life. For example, when footage was being shown of the girls with their new parents, a voiceover highlighted the fact that only a week ago, the little girls were “among the most rejected in Chinese society,” but now they were being accepted in American society. I think that this footage was unnecessary. It seemed to be promoting American supremacy by portraying Americans as the only people who could help the little girls who were abandoned. No people or organizations in other countries were mentioned, nor were any Chinese organizations besides the orphanages where the girls lived before being adopted. Thus, the documentary seemed to be a little biased towards Americans and their ways of living. The way that the stories alternated between the interviews with the Chinese people and the footage of Americans adopting Chinese babies almost forced the viewer to choose a side, ultimately making the Chinese culture and policy that brought about the abandonment of girls look truly evil and corrupt, even more than it actually is.
In order to teach students about a documentary and how it communicates it message, I would have students watch a documentary in class. They would then be asked to decide as a class on a main message that the documentary was trying to communicate and cite evidence as to why they think so. Evidence would include whose story was being told, who was interviewed and why (what is their position, what makes them an authority?), how scenes and shots were linked together, what do the voiceovers say, etc. Students would then be split up into groups and each group would be assigned a specific topic related to the documentary that they would do research on. For example, students could research the organization that produced the documentary, organizations or people mentioned in the documentary, opposite sides to those presented, or even get more information on what was presented in the documentary. Students would then present their research to the class. Finally, students would watch the documentary again, comparing the information presented in the documentary to the information they researched. Given what they learned in their research, students could then discuss what information the documentary leaves out and speculate as to why. They could also discuss the information included in the documentary, how it was arranged to create meaning, and speculate more deeply on how that included information works to portray a certain message.