Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow has been short listed for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards. The film, about intrepid, mercilessly funny, and virally renowned Chinese activist Ye Haiyan, (Hooligan Sparrow), is among the 15 in the running along with The Ivory Game, The Eagle Huntress, and Tower. Academy members are currently making their selection and the five finalists will be announced on 24 January with the rest of the Oscar nominees.
The film has won multiple awards and nominations and has screened at numerous film festivals (Sundance, Hotdocs, AFI Docs, Full Frame, etc.), throughout the U.S. and abroad because of its epic themes which appear to be more current than ever. Its focus on human rights issues of free speech, a free press, the right to a fair trial, women’s rights, the right to dissent without retaliation, punishment or continual oppression is of vital concern. This may especially be so in democracies where a surreptitious erosion of liberties always lurks behind oligarchic hegemony, money in politics, and shadowy government malfeasance.
At a screening of Hooligan Sparrow on Monday evening, Gloria Steinem, Nanfu Wang, Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch (Director of Global Initiatives), Alison Klayman (director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry), Justine Nagan, Executive Producer, POV & American Reframed; Executive Director American Documentary Inc. and Maxyne Franklin, Director BRITDOC were there to support the film. After the screening there was a panel discussion moderated by Pamela Yates (filmmaker 500 Years), to discuss the power of documentary filmmaking to effect change.
Nanfu Wang spoke at length about activism and art and whether she considered herself to be an activist prior to making the film (she does now). She gave an update on what is happening to the subjects of the film (see below). Gloria Steinem in her introduction to the film emphasized that we can (if we so wish), be hooligans together (referencing the activism of Ye Haiyan).
More than the other films up for Academy Award narrative documentary consideration, Hooligan Sparrow was shot at great risk to the security of filmmaker Nanfu Wang and the well being and safety of subjects Ye Haiyan, Wang Yu (one of the few female human rights lawyers in China), and other activists in the film. In the film’s opening, each of the activists, including Nanfu Wang, is filmed alone looking into the camera making the admission that they, “Will not commit suicide.” Each makes it clear, if they disappear or turn up dead, it was not by their own hands. It is then Wang Yu explains that the Chinese government uses detention/incarceration, placement in a mental institution, and “disappearance” to counteract/threaten dissidents and shut them up.
What were these activists doing that was so dangerous their lives could be snuffed out? They were seeking justice; they were protesting sexual predation and the kidnapping and rape of six girls (ages 11-14), whose parents were frightened to press charges (indeed, the police initially claimed there was no crime). Because a government official was the rapist, aided and abetted by the principal of the school, who arranged that the girls be abducted to a hotel and raped, the crime would have been “swept under the carpet” except for Hooligan Sparrow’s highly visible protest that goes viral on Social Media and now is being witnessed globally on film.
Nanfu Wang films the activists’ protest in front of the school which the government monitors but allows to continue because the Chinese media has picked up the story. It is after the spotlight is off Hooligan Sparrow, the activists and the case, that government retaliation envelopes Hooligan Sparrow. Nanfu Wang chronicles the abuse and bullying by government thugs; she covers how Sparrow is detained on trumped up charges, then released, then evicted from her apartment. As Sparrow seeks a safe haven elsewhere with friends, she is kidnapped by secret police and left with her daughter alone on the road with her few possessions.
Nanfu Wang manages to capture modern China’s repression, corruption, human rights violations, indeed, the abrogation of citizens’ rights to safety and security from egregious government malfeasance and abuse, especially when its own are implicated in shameful crimes against innocents that beggar imagination.
What is striking is what Nanfu Wang’s sub rosa, on the ground filmmaking documents. In the film she shows the government surveillance of their actions from the outset of the protest. She reveals in live action that the activists are attacked, beaten, kidnapped, detained. Though Hooligan Sparrow was released because the global spotlight was on her on, she is hounded and harassed until the only place she may live unmolested is back at her childhood home with her mother, all of which Nanfu Wang chronicles.
For her part Nanfu Wang manages to tape undercover when she, herself, is brought in for questioning. Though she is able to smuggle out a good deal of her film, other film is confiscated. In such an environment when there is wrongdoing, the oppressors want to leave no record of what they do and say so all incriminating evidence may be denied. In light of what Nanfu Wang has captured on film, her actions are powerful, revolutionary.
Nanfu Wang’s message is clear; this is happening in China; it is ongoing and the people have little recourse except to document, take a stand, fight for justice, dissent, and gain the attention of the world as Hooligan Sparrow has done. But to do this, they must overcome fear in an environment that serves up fear hourly, daily with every meal its citizens consume. To be an activist in China, one must confront the fact that one may be killed or abused, taking a stand for justice while their sacrificial action may never be known by the public.
Nanfu Wang shows that the more horrific the shame brought to the government’s door, the greater the retaliation. During the panel talk Nanfu Wang discussed that Wang Yu and her husband were detained without formal charges for months. Wang Yu’s son was placed under house arrest and Wang Yu recanted her testimony, most probably because of her son being under house arrest.
This film is of incalculable worth because it documents on-the-ground, the live footage of the subterranean life in China in one of the most repressive stages of its modern history since the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. As Gloria Steinem suggested, Nanfu Wang has given us this gift. Most importantly, her film is an encouragement for women and men in showing how an individual under his or her own will to power can have an impact. They can move the wheel of justice forward in the face of what appears to be overwhelming obstacles to impede it.
For my 20 October interview with Nanfu Wang click HERE