Misconception, the documentary from filmmaker Jessica Yu, is a bit of a messy film, featuring a disjointed three chapter structure and often failing to build momentum. However, the subject matter in Misconception is presented with such passion and the final product is powerful enough that all of its flaws are easily overlooked, and what’s left is a poignant film that’s a bit rough around the edges.
Misconception is a documentary about population growth, told in three chapters and held together by an eccentric sociologist who breaks down the complex nuances of population growth into digestible chunks (with the help of a giant projector demonstration and a pointer constructed out of what looks to be two broom handles taped together). The first chapter—the film’s weak point—focuses on the effect of China’s quarter-century long one-child policy. Specifically, the film focuses on a twenty-nine year old man who can’t find a wife (China’s traditions dictate that most men are married by thirty) due to the the fact that China’s one-child policy has resulted in eight men for every five women. The second and third chapters are separate stories but work together wonderfully: chapter two focuses on a anti-choice woman from Canada who attends international population summits to counteract advocates of contraception and abortion in poor countries with exorbitant fertility rates. The final chapter—the most profound of the film—follows Gladys Kalibbala, an extraordinary Ugandan woman who fights for contraception education in Uganda and advocates for abandoned children.
Misconception is at its best when it’s passionately arguing for the necessity of contraception education, prophylactics and family planning (and it does so with level-headed compassion and poignant insight that might not win over stringent anti-choicers but it certainly won’t insult or castigate them), which is what makes the film’s first chapter so out of place. Following a Chinese man named Bao Jianxin, the first chapter mostly chronicles his inability to “score” a wife (Bao is quite unlikeable—frequently telling his on-again, off-again fiancé that she is too fat to marry—which makes the first chapter all the more uninteresting). But the next two chapters play off of one another with beautiful juxtaposition: first by following anti-choice activist Denise Mountenay as she attends a UN conference and attempts to persuade government officials, sociologists and populationists away from advocating birth control or abortion by giving them gift baskets replete with Swiss chocolates and tiny plastic fetuses. (Mountenay keeps these fetuses—intended as a reminder of the unborn child inside pregnant women—in a suitcase, lending the film some of its darkest comedic moments as a homely Canadian woman flips open a suitcase to reveal what appears to be Dr. Moureau level horrors inside). Mountenay is likable but horribly misguided, attempting to persuade underdeveloped, poor countries with inflated fertility rates that abortion, birth control and family planning will cosmically doom their people (at one point she meets an ambassador from Bangladesh and presents him with one of her plastic fetuses exclaiming “And look! It’s Bangladeshi colored!”). Mountenay is injudicious and daft, a dangerous combination for a person granted even an ounce of power or influence. And to Jessica Yu’s credit, she is even-handed, never insulting or condemning Mountenay and allowing her to present her perspective without judgment.
But the film’s hero is Kaliballa, a woman whose compassion, charity and empathy seem to be boundless. Whether teaching young girls about prophylactics and contraceptions, personally fostering children, or seeking aid for tumor-ridden children, Kaliballa is the kind of person an ugly world needs but certainly doesn’t deserve. Jessica Yu certainly understands Kaliballa’s magnetism but frequently undermines her power by cutting in cheesy montages with soft Sarah McLachlan-esque musical cues that makes the film feel more like a charity informercial than a substantive documentary. But by juxtaposing Kaliballa’s understanding empathy with Mountenay’s misguided compassion, the film presents a strong pro-choice perspective that elevates itself beyond religious and political fervor and paints a portrait of why family planning and abortion are necessary for the longevity of the planet.
Yu’s Misconception isn’t an explosive documentary. It’s not redefining the medium or providing any new insight into a complex issue. It’s a partisan documentary that deftly summates its position and that of the opposition without stooping to name-calling and mud-slinging. And if nothing else, Misconception is worth the price of admission just to learn a thing or two about Gladys Kaliballa.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.