The World's Population Might Not Be About Numbers After All

The Jessica Yu–helmed documentary 'Misconception' challenges what we think we know about fertility and birth rates.
Apr 15, 2014·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

In a world with limited resources, we have to conserve what we have and reduce the number of people on the planet—at least that’s what most of us believe. Is this true? That’s the provocative question raised by the new documentary Misconception. The film, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 20, gives us a personal look at the social and political ramifications of population growth.

Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu (best documentary short subject) began exploring the issue of population growth while making her previous documentary, Last Call at the Oasis, which is about the global water crisis. During every post-viewing question-and-answer period, “we literally had people saying, Your next film has to be about population growth,” says Yu. But instead of beginning with the traditional population-suppression-equals-enough-resources mind-set, Yu says she and her collaborators decided to confront “misconceptions about the role of population in the global picture.”

Misconception challenges our assumptions through the stories of three everyday people: Bao, a Chinese bachelor who’s facing pressure from his family to marry; Denise, a Canadian pro-life activist; and Gladys, a Kampala, Uganda–based journalist who works with abandoned children.

At 29, Bao is under the gun to tie the knot. We see him attending learn-to-date classes and being chastised by relatives who think he’s waited too long. While most Westerners probably can’t imagine the kind of odds he’s facing—China has 30 million fewer women than men—Millennials across the globe are confronting similar challenges.

“They’ve been told you should have someone who’s educated and good-looking, and you shouldn’t have to settle for less,” says Yu. Today's “young people are holding off on marriage because they want more education and more from their career,” she adds. However, “what makes it different in China is that the traditional mind-set from the grandparents and parents is still very strong.”

They’re right to be concerned, says Yu, because “there’s not a huge safety net for the older generation.” In China, “you depend on your offspring and their spouse to take care of you.” If those young people don’t get married, “it’s very scary and disorienting for parents to wonder what’s going to happen to them as they get older.”

From there, the film heads to small-town Morinville, Alberta, to follow Denise, a pro-life activist who travels to New York City for a conference on population at the United Nations. “The conventional notion would be that we’d follow somebody that’s pushing for increased funding for family planning,” says Yu. But telling Denise’s story provides a different perspective on the “forces and opinions and philosophies that are at play in the global conflict over family planning in places with high birthrates.”

We watch as Denise tries to sway nail technicians, cab drivers, and diplomats to her anti–birth control, anti-abortion point of view. “I know a lot of people will not agree with Denise,” says Yu, but “she’s choosing to speak up and get involved.... It’s interesting to see how effective she can be."

Denise hammers home the point that we should be eliminating poverty—not children—which is difficult to argue with, but it’s obvious it’s an infinitely more complex issue after you spend time in Kampala with Gladys, a journalist who started a newspaper column about children who’ve been abandoned in the city.

Yu decided to tell Gladys’ story because it forces us to consider, “What if you’re a child born to a woman who didn’t have a choice about having you?” and “What does the future look like to a child who’s born into this situation that’s not planned or wanted?”

We see how Gladys, who Yu describes as “one of those larger-than-life people,” has built relationships with the local police and social service agencies to reconnect children who are left in hospitals or on the side of the road with family members. It’s a sharp contrast with Bao’s story. He’s worried about being seen as “leftover man,” Chinese shorthand for a perma-bachelor, while the children in Uganda have simply been left behind by their parents.

Yu hopes that after watching Misconception viewers will start asking the right questions. “Fixation on the numbers becomes an excuse not to look at the underlying causes” of both falling and rising fertility rates. In places with falling birthrates, Yu says, we have to ask ourselves “about the opportunities for women in particular cultures—do they have the support they need to work, and raise a family, and do everything else in daily life?” In places in the developing world where women have multiple children, we have to remember that they use fewer resources.

“If you live in the U.S. and you have one child, your footprint is 25 times bigger than similar families in Mozambique,” says Yu. “The problems of the world aren’t on the shoulders of people having ‘too many kids.’ Everyone has a role in this—whether it’s a smaller, wealthier family that consumes a lot or a larger family that has more kids than can easily be handled by the parents.”