Documentary Review: ‘Misconception’

Review by Justin Goodman

Among the many proclaimed dilemmas of the 21st century, none grabs the imagination as much as overpopulation does. You need only look as far as Thomas Friedman to see its memetic qualities. Such is Thomas Robert Malthus’ legacy. In 18th century England, before the Industrial Revolution, Malthus would propose that due to the unequal growth rate of population and food supply, births would need to be curtailed if humanity was to avoid mass starvation. Despite being shown (if not wrong) as overly-pessimistic by technology’s effects on food production, the Malthusian torch was passed to the 19th century Dutch politician Samuel Van Houten, who advocated for increased use of birth control. Here in the 21st century, with Hot, Flat, & Crowded floating around, you may notice that the one thing these theories bracket are the ones who birth and raise the population. It’s on this note that Jessica Yu wrote and directed Misconception whose title speaks for the content. A remedy of ignorance, and a frank discussion of birth politics.

Best known for the 1996 Academy Award-winning documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, Yu deals with her subjects with a lighter footprint. Broken into three chapters, each separated with statements by statistician Hans Rosling, Misconception follows the typical “outsider looking in” perspective in an attempt towards journalism. To her credit, she is generally as critical of her subjects as she is understanding: a “Little Emperor,” a Canadian Pro-Lifer, and a Ugandan journalist. Bao, a product of China’s One-Child Policy, is both offensively dismissive of women (calling his fiance-then ex-then fiance “fat”) while pitifully longing for love to the point of watching and admiring romcom protagonists. He ends as a “leftover” at 30. Denise, having gone through three abortions, is a Pro-Lifer going to the UN to advocate against birth control. Holding a plastic fetus between her fingers, her observable remembering is strikingly authentic; then you remember that her advocacy is not simply about abortion (which is at least conceptually problematic), but against, in her own words, “a propaganda campaign agenda to push comprehensive unrestrained sexuality education into nations.”

Regardless of personal politics, Yu captures these odd figures as individuals affected by population issues. When it comes to Uganda, however, and Gladys Kalibbala’s story, the center where Yu tries to plant herself begins to tilt. Kalibbala writes a regular column about lost and abandoned children for the newspaper, New Vision. We watch her talk to adolescent mothers and abandoned infants, hear about the experiences of these young mothers who can’t afford another child; some were raped, some hadn’t learned about family planning in time. And since abortion is illegal when not endangering the mother’s welfare, birth is inescapable. If this sounds like a PSA, that’s because Kalibbala’s story might as well be one. Lacking identifiable character flaws, Yu depends on the innate misery of the Ugandan situation to stir the viewer. It makes for an uneasy balance, character and concept, when character had been the motivating factor up to this point. It’s still a powerful contrast, but it nullifies the spark of individuality at the heart of Misconception, that humanity deals with the same essentials in accidentally different ways, from wealthy Canada and China to impoverished Uganda. As Yu says, “In the end, there’s only one story really.”

That story, of course, is the one Hans Rosling tells throughout the documentary. Known partially for wacky TED Talks–at one he does a sword swallowing trick–he’s surprisingly placid here. First he assuages fears about the population: despite what Malthusians might say, the world population is stabilizing at 7 billion with relatively small variations. Why? Not because of policies like China’s. This is the one time he jokes during the interviews. “Why do we use contraceptives? Is it to have fewer children, he asks, “no. It’s to have more sex.” Abstinence (the unofficial demand of Evangelical movement’s like Denise’s) is useless in the face of human sexuality. Rather, with gender equity, when women have equal opportunities, birthrates decline; The data, he adds, supports the idea that increased education/economic power among women means decreased fertility rates. In countries like Uganda, impoverished and undereducated, we see the most births per household. Yu makes no qualms about revealing her true beliefs by this point, setting aside the journalistic eye she’d come in looking with. Kalibbala’s last words on screen are a fitting indictment for a documentary that had opened up rather quietly: ”You can’t call it private business when everyone is suffering.”

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