Population growth in the political arena is a daunting subject to broach. For many, it is easy to reduce human beings to a statistic or a problem to solve. Academy Award winner Jessica Yu’s documentary Misconception takes the fears of overpopulation to the most basic human level – the individual – and attempts to illustrate it in diverse, yet interconnected stories of people from all walks of life dealing with population change in proactive ways. Yu’s documentary triumphs in turning over facts to reveal hidden perspectives and provides a refreshingly hopeful look at our earth’s future. At times her stories ironically fall into a trap, losing the perspective of the film’s bigger picture, however, their basic impact still hinges on and illuminates the encompassing message of possibility.
Narrated by actress Kyra Sedgwick (TV’s The Closer), the film focuses on three individuals dealing with the varying consequences of population change. The first is a 29-year-old bachelor looking for love in Beijing, China where the “one-child policy” in conjunction with a cultural preference for boys, has worked to stifle population growth, but has also led to an estimated loss of 30 million women. The second story is of a Christian activist who lobbies at the U.N. to challenge the language of “reproductive rights” in order to look at the dangers of blindly pushing toward contraception and abortion. Yu’s last story centers on a reporter in Ghana who uses her position to help the numerous lost and abandoned children – products of a culture lacking in resources and the know-how for family planning. These tales succeed in depicting rarely heard perspectives within the population discussion while tying in other issues at the forefront, including gender politics, poverty, abortion, and family tradition.
The film does not fall into blind optimism, but smartly plays both sides of the population coin. The audience is given all of the facts: the 7 billion people in the world will increase to around 9 billion by the year 2050. Eighty-percent live in areas with a small birth rate of 2.5, however, this skyrockets in developing countries. As the story begins, these facts quickly lose their potency on the personal and human level. Yu features a prominent voice to supplement her findings in global health professor and proclaimed “possibilist” Hans Rosling. She edits snippets of his popular TED talks to tie her individual vignettes together as well as hone in on his loudly optimistic, yet realistic message – that if governments take care of their people, the population will take care of itself. While the film would have been better off in expanding Rosling’s presence and ideas throughout the documentary, his statistical findings do well to ground the individual stories.
Yu’s Chinese bachelor, or “lonely emperor”, has one of the most unique personal tales, but it also struggles to find its footing within the documentary. While we see him search for love in an unbalanced population met in defeat, and empathize with his concerns about getting married and having children before 30, the story loses focus when it becomes a study on the trials of dating in the millennial age. Scenes that feature him in impersonal party environments and taking dating classes are brutally honest and relatable, but they ultimately fall away from the film’s main concern. It isn’t until we see him go home to his parents that his story gets to the heart of the matter: a culture based on family tradition is suffering from a decrease in the children that are relied upon to take care of their elders and carry on the family through procreation. Here the film clearly demonstrates the clash of generations and their ideas of “love” being put to the test under the added weight of population control.
Misconception’s most politically charged story – the religious lobbyist attempting to change the abortion conversation – tackles the interconnected issues of women’s rights and population in a surprising and unconventional way. We see a woman who has had three abortions herself and has since realized the dangers of forced population control and problematic rhetoric within the pro-choice movement. Despite the controversy of challenging what is now considered a human rights issue, this woman has valuable insights to consider. She highlights the issue of population deficits in certain developed countries (i.e. Canada) and suggests poverty to be the true root of the population evil. Interestingly, she finds a way to tackle reproductive rights in both a non-religious and non-feminist angle, but also presents the conundrum of the countless factors contributing to population change. In the end, her story raises more questions than it answers, but does well to showcase unconventional approaches to the discussion.
Yu ends her documentary in a powerful call-to-arms, depicting one of the worst cases of overpopulation under a tone of hope and possibility. Her Ghanaian reporter attempts to aid Africa’s collection of forgotten children, many of whom were abandoned by mothers unable to take care of them, feed them, or pay for their medical needs. While each child she meets is followed by another and another, the reporter does not find her work futile. Her story instead focuses in on the values of action and caring for population rather than stifling it. Yu shines light on the power of the human spirit in exacting positive change and in counteracting the source of the issue.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Yu has a compellingly subversive story to tell: one of hope for future generations. While the media is eager to place blame and crowd our perspectives with statistics, Yu challenges several of the misconceptions dominating popular opinion. Her individual stories beautifully drive home the idea that positive change can occur on the individual level, that seeing population in generalisations disregards our nature as human beings. Although Misconception succeeds in telling a different story, the film ultimately struggles to cohesively assert conclusions and lives too deeply in the realm of possibility. The increasingly vague notion of “needing to do something” falls short of its message and the film, like the population issue, is unfortunately left on a cliffhanger.