How it’s Irish: The Irish are famous – or notorious – for large families, so a documentary on population growth is highly pertinent.
“Get sterilized and win this car.” So promises a banner over a shining automobile in rural India in “Misconception,” a documentary on world population growth that recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film by Jessica Yu surprises by opening with a population expert declaring widespread fears about runaway population growth unfounded. According to his figures, in 80% of the world’s countries, the average birthrate barely maintains current population numbers. Which raises the question, why then are we bothering to watch a documentary on a problem that doesn’t exist? But Yu, who won an Oscar for a documentary short she made back in 1996, is interested in a broad view of population issues around the world.
The film is divided in three main parts, the first focusing on a 29-year-old man working in Beijing as a marketer in a wine company and who is feeling pressure from his parents back home to marry.
Though China’s decades-old one-child rule has resulted in a surplus of eligible bachelors, this man sill has definite notions about what he requires in a woman, including that she be “clean and fresh,” and between five feet four inches and five feet seven inches tall. Among the ways he employs to land the right girl is studying the moves of the male lead in a hit Chinese film called “Love.” He also attends a speed dating session, a seminar with a dating coach, and he visits a nightclub. Along the way, our man adopts a new hairdo. Though it is interesting and entertaining to see how life is lived in today’s China, it’s hard to see what it all has to do with population growth. As we watch the character getting drunk, his father getting drunk, him reuniting and then breaking up with a former girlfriend, arguments around the dinner table and the like, the film takes on the quality of a reality television show.
The second segment concerns the anti-abortion efforts of a fundamentalist Christian woman from Canada.
Sent by her local church to New York for a United Nations session on population growth, she buttonholes any delegate within arm’s reach to preach about the evils of abortion. The film invites us to laugh at this woman, and people in the audience did laugh, but this cringe-inducing Borat style footage impressed mostly by feeling overlong and padded.
The film then moves on to Kampala, Uganda, where a woman journalist works to address the problem of abandoned children in that painfully poor country.
Mothers on their own and unable to feed another child will drop that child off at some public space in the desperate hope that it will be picked up and cared for. Wide-eyed pitiable waifs dominate this part of the documentary. Just behind them in wretchedness are their mothers, one of whom when asked what she does for income, says, “I dig and I wash other people’s clothes.”
There is lots of good documentary filmmaking in “Misconception,” and it’s a worthwhile effort, but the parts don’t really add up. The film feels cobbled together. If there’s a message, it’s out of focus.