Director of One Child Nation and Hooligan Sparrow named one of 21 recipients of prestigious fellowship
Director Nanfu Wang has earned numerous awards for her work as a documentary filmmaker, including making the Oscar shortlist twice. But her latest honor puts her in a particularly exclusive class.
Wang, 34, was named to the 2020 class of MacArthur Foundation fellows, known popularly as the "genius grant" for the exceptional level of brilliance of the honorees selected from across the sciences and humanities. Twenty one people were awarded grants this year, including Stanford University sociologist Forrest Stuart, cognitive neuroscientist Damien Fair, historian Natalia Molina and playwright Larissa FastHorse.
The grants, which come with a "no strings-attached" award of $625,000, recognize "exceptional creativity."
Wang, whose feature documentary credits include Hooligan Sparrow (2016), I Am Another You (2017) and One Child Nation (2019) was saluted by the MacArthur Foundation for "creating intimate character studies that examine the impact of authoritarian governance, corruption, and lack of accountability on the lives of individuals."
Every film, to me, is a journey of discovery.
"I make films that explore the theme of freedom, power, propaganda and state control over individual lives," Wang said in a video posted to the MacArthur Foundation website.
Hooligan Sparrow, shortlisted for the Oscars, centered on Chinese human rights activist Ye Haiyan, who faced a furious backlash from authorities for exposing a sexual abuse scandal at an elementary school in Hainan Province.
One Child Nation, shortlisted this year for the Oscars, took a similarly provocative stance towards Wang's native China. It investigated in shocking detail how China enforced its one child policy, limiting population growth through forced abortions, sterilizations and infanticide.
Wang reacted to her MacArthur Foundation award on Twitter, writing, "Honored to be selected as a fellow as a Chinese citizen. Many storytellers in China are geniuses but their stories didn’t even get passed the censorship and be told and heard. Hope we’ll see more real stories coming from China."
Wang now makes her home in Montclair, New Jersey. When I got in touch with her in August to write a piece for Deadline.com on One Child Nation, I asked her if she has been able to return to China given the unflattering spotlight her films have directed on the country.
"I have gone back to China since One Child Nation was released to visit my family," she told me. "It was a short trip but I didn't encounter any harassment from the authorities during the visit."
Chinese authorities have shown an eagerness to curtail access to her most recent documentary, which won the Emmy last month for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
"Some people in China managed to pirate [One Child Nation] and the link of the film was on the internet for a while before the Chinese censors took it down," Wang said. "The Chinese government tried to make sure the film couldn't reach the public. It was omitted and excluded from all Chinese media reports when they covered awards in the U.S., such as nominations for the PGA and DGA awards and the Oscars shortlist. Blogs and user generated reviews on the film were deleted as well."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.