‘That could have been me’: In Oscar-nominated short, director Song Siqi explores abortions under China’s one-child policy

Feb 07, 2020

Director Song Siqi’s Oscar-nominated short ‘Sister’ is a poignant and personal look at the psychological toll that China’s one-child policy takes on one family.

Song Siqi, the Chinese director behind the animated short Sister, still remembers the exhilaration of the night she found out she was nominated for an Oscar.

“I remember refreshing the page a thousand times,” she recalls.

When the list of nominees finally came out, her film was at the bottom of the list in alphabetical order.

“It finally popped up the moment we almost lost hope,” she says. “It was truly unforgettable.”

Song is nominated for Sister, an eight-minute animated short about China’s one-child policy and the toll it takes on one family.

Dedicated to “the siblings we never had,” the poignant film centers on an only child’s fantasies about what his home life might have been like if his mother had not been forced to abort her second child, the film’s titular sister.

A still from “Sister.”
A still from “Sister.” / Photo: Courtesy of Song Siqi

China’s one-child policy lasted from 1979 to 2015 for urban families, resulting in millions of prevented births and a generation of children growing up without siblings.

As weighty as the subject matter might be, Song does not consider Sister a political piece. “I think family is a permanent theme that can resonate with people all over the world,” she says.

The subject matter is especially personal for Song because she was born as a second child when the one-child policy was in full swing.

“He was supposed to have a sister, but she was never born. That could have been me.”

Song Siqi

“Both of my parents work for the government,” says Song, who grew up in Henan Province. “Their careers would have been more promising if they didn’t break the rules by having me.”

For years, Song’s parents never talked about the sacrifices they made to have her. She always wondered what life would have been like for her brother had she not been born.

A still from “Sister.”
A still from “Sister.” / Photo: Courtesy of Song Siqi

It was not until she started pursuing a master’s degree in filmmaking at CalArts that she seriously considered channeling those questions into an art project.

There, Song met another Chinese student who “said that he was supposed to have a sister,” she says, “but she was never born. That could have been me.”

That student eventually became the narrator and subject of her short film, which was also her thesis project.

A still from “Sister.”
A still from “Sister.” / Photo: Courtesy of Song Siqi

Sister is told from the perspective of an older brother who must put up with the trivial pestering of his little sister.

She steals his toys and fights with him over the television, but there are also sweet moments, like when the sister takes her brother’s tooth and plants it like a seed.

“I wanted to tell a story in a humorous and playful way,’’ Song says. “With my older brother, we used to bury our teeth in a potted plant hoping it would grow into something, because in Chinese, teeth has the same pronunciation as sprouts.”

Many of the film’s most poignant moments come directly from her childhood memories.

“My favorite shot is that first family portrait,” she says. “Because growing up, my family would take family photos every year during Chinese New Year.”

A still from “Sister.”
A still from “Sister.” / Photo: Courtesy of Song Siqi

The style film’s pastel black-and-white style draws inspiration from traditional Chinese ink paintings, which she learned as a child.

But what stands out most is the film’s texture. The characters are all made of wool. Song felt the material’s soft texture reflected the nostalgic quality of childhood memories.

“It was my first time using the material,’’ she admits.“It was very time-consuming to create these characters from scratch.”

Song studied fine arts in Beijing, but she settled on filmmaking—animation in particular—because of its infinite possibilities.

“I think animation is the best combination of cinema and fine art, of technique and storytelling,’’ she says. “Most importantly, it is limitless.”

Song is already working on her next animation project and says she hopes to continue making films based on realities that “reflect our times.”

“Growing up, my peers always ask me what it feels like to have an older brother, and when I came to the U.S., I found that everyone was curious about how it feels like to grow up as an only child in China,” Song says. “I am not criticizing anything, but I am just offering another perspective for the otherwise unknown.”

FilmChinese millennials