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Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘Hooligan Sparrow,’ A Filmmaker Goes Undercover

Hooligan Sparrow, Nanfu Wang, Ba Diucao
Cartoon art representative of ‘Hooligan Sparrow,’ for the film ‘Hooligan Sparrow,’ by Nanfu Wang. Artist Ba Diucao.

To be an activist in China, one must be cagey fighting injustice. Exercising ones’ rights is paid for with a heavy price: persecution, incarceration, bloodshed. These are consequences which filmmaker Nanfu Wang, and subjects Ye Haiyan (a.k.a “Hooligan Sparrow”), lawyer Wang Yu, Jia Lingmen and other activists understood they would face when they protested the abduction and rape of girls by their school principal and a governmental official in the gripping and shockingly visceral cinema verite crime/protest documentary Hooligan Sparrow.

Nanufu’s (she wrote, directed and produced), technique is “in-your-face,” immediate, participatory. She supplements the documentary with brief video clips of activists’ commentary to clarify key issues. Through her unique, thrilling cinematography, her vision becomes our vision. She cogently narrates the devolving and frightening events as they occur during her summer journey chronicling Hooligan Sparrow, lawyer Wang Yu, and their activist team as they uphold women’s rights against a corrupt body politic. Nanfu embraces their wild “hooliganism” standing up to the state and films herself as an integral part of the action.

At the outset of the documentary, Nanfu briefly introduces herself, and highlights Sparrow’s backstory. Sparrow has become globally known as a women’s rights activist, effective for her outrageous online approach to protest the abuse of sex workers ill treated in brothels set up for migrant workers across China. Sparrow’s use of Social Media gained her a following; her photos and videos have gone viral because of her audacious humor. Sparrow appears nude in online photos to represent the plight of sex workers. She has offered herself up for free sex as a diversionary tactic to humorously target the abusive practices of brothel owners and has distributed condoms to sex workers to promote safe sex. For these “notorious” actions, her followers awarded her with the nickname, Ye Haiyan.

What makes Nanfu’s film outstanding is the many faceted prism of “activism as life” and “art as activism,” “life as activism,” “art as life,” etc. As Nanfu reveals her portrait of Sparrow’s activists and the harrowing actions and enforced retaliation by the state, we see the larger frame of Nanfu’s guerilla journalism which actively vibrates tension and fear as she exposes the broader networked government corruption and oppression. Nanfu furtively accomplishes this with unforgettable clarity. She emphasizes that she must shoot surreptitiously; she masks her actions and goes undercover to wear a wire when she cannot film. Though she doesn’t realize the extent of it at first, she and the activists are being monitored; their every move shadowed.

Wang Yu, Nanfu Wang, Hooligan Sparrow
Lawyer Wang Yu hands out flyers on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at the protest in ‘Hooligan Sparrow.” Photo courtesy of Nanfu Wang.

Nanfu demonstrates the danger involved in making the film which, if discovered, will be confiscated, and whose showing will threaten the lives of the subjects. Sparrow, Wang, Jia, and others make the admission that they are activists who would never choose to commit suicide. They state if they are discovered missing or found dead, it is connected with their protest against the principal sex abuse case that is in the courts. Their admission reveals the extent of the vast network of government corruption and injustice that is rife in China. As Nanfu makes the confession, she is plaintive when she implores that justice be done if she disappears.

Just prior to their adjurations, lawyer Wang Yu dryly discusses how activists attempt to combat government suppression and punishment by protecting themselves with such admissions. She states that government retaliation against activists typically includes interrogations, detentions, incarcerations in mental institutions and “disappearances.” Clearly, activists are part of an intrepid resistance movement that is defiant and will not be cowed or bullied. From this moment on, we understand that we are in for a chaotic, high-pitched battle for justice in a country which is proudly disdainful of its citizen’s lives and rights, and is willing to punish, and perhaps kill those who effectively flout tyranny by exposing wrongdoing, a “hooligan” action that “weakens” fraudulent government strongholds and globally makes China lose face.

Nanfu switches back and forth alternating coverage of Sparrow and Wang as they criss cross the country on their respective fights and flights looking for somewhere to land safely as the sparrow metaphor and themes become cruelly apparent. Nanfu reveals the events during and after the activists’ initial protest on Hainan Island, Wanning City in front of Elementary School #2. From there, the school principal abducted 6 girls (ages 11-14), and with a government official took them to another location, kept them overnight, and raped them repeatedly. Nanfu reveals, through translated video news clips, the background of the case and the police collusion that “no sexual violations occurred.” When a parent provides evidence of bloodied underwear and testimony about his daughter bleeding for four days, the principal and the official are charged and go on trial.

Hooligan Sparrow, Ye Haiyan, China's Women's Federation
Ye Haiyan, AKA Hooligan Sparrow holds up a sign protesting the principal and official who raped 6 girls. The sign reads “All China’s Women’s Federation is a farce. China’s women’s rights are dead. 1949-2013 Fallen.” Photo courtesy of Nanfu Wang.

Nanfu films the activist protest as the group informs the citizens of the egregiousness of the crimes (Sparrow’s sign says, “Principal, get a room with me. Leave those kids alone.”). The women hope their protest will be the initial step in creating a groundswell of citizen support against child prostitution laws to prevent child rapes. Child rapes are proliferating because giving over young girls as bribes to government officials has become de rigueur for underlings to get perks. But will the principal and official be convicted of child rape which in China holds a possible sentence of  life imprisonment or the death penalty? Or will they be charged with effecting child prostitution (if they gave the girls money they can plead it was prostitution), which gets a lesser charge of 5-15 years? The activists hold up signs calling for reform of the child prostitution law sentencing, for the campus to be purified and for the resignations of the higher ups whose silence about the situation indicates complicity.

Until the trial and sentencing are over, Sparrow and the activists are safe; the security agents, police, and gangs hired by government officials will do nothing to publicize the case; they hope all will be swept under the rug and be forgotten by the public. Once the spotlight is off, Sparrow discusses, then the intimidation and punishment will come.

And so it goes. The principal and the official are convicted and receive light sentences (13 years and 11 years). Immediately afterward, trouble and darkness rain down on the lives of Sparrow, the lawyer, and the activists. As the retaliation intensifies, Nanfu chronicles the human right’s violations, the bullying abuse and the networked governmental thuggery by filming chilling incidents in the moment and on the ground. Through the angle of her simple, sparse, unobtrusive lens we “get” that the activists and Nanfu are the hunted to be destroyed.

Events roil: Sparrow and others are incarcerated and interrogated; she is released because of an outcry on Social Media. But Sparrow is repeatedly hounded and forced to flee with her daughter. She faces many evictions and must travel great distances trying to find a safe place to land. In each city where she attempts to live near friends, she is monitored/followed; thugs bully her and force her out. Nanfu becomes swept up in the action. She, too, becomes a target; her friends are targets and she must  struggle against security agents and secret police who constantly harass her and the activists with her. It is “safe” to harass and beat up the activists with impunity for the global spotlight has waned. Nanfu’s greatest fear is the confiscation of her camera and film. Indeed, as she hides from security agents, thugs and police, she becomes another member of Sparrow’s flock until finally she, too, is interrogated.

Hooligan Sparrow, Nanfu Wang, Brooklyn Museum
Nanfu Wang in the Brooklyn Museum filming the
exhibition of Ye Haiyan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow) in ‘Hooligan Sparrow.’ Photo courtesy of Nanfu Wang.

The conclusion of the film is startling; we learn what happens to the activists. The theme that this harmless sparrow which is fighting for the right and good is viewed as a “hooligan” by government criminals because she shines a light on depraved acts of the powerful is the key theme of this incredible and complex artistic achievement. The sparrow metaphor is well chosen as an object lesson if one considers that in 1958 China, sparrows were considered pests and were all but destroyed. Subsequently, there was a three year famine in China; locusts and other insects unstopped by sparrows devoured the grain crops. The unassuming birds were vital components in an ecosystem that could not thrive without them.

Such it is with Sparrow and her activists. Indeed, such “hooligans” must increase their numbers if change and reform are to occur. This is so not only in China, but throughout the world; individuals must stand against injustice, law enforcement collusion and corruption to insure a healthy governmental ecosystem.

In this amazing film we understand how Sparrow’s life and Nanfu’s film become the apotheosis of renegade art. In revealing how Sparrow, Wang Yu and the other activists suffer giving new meaning to an activism which upholds human values and rights, Nanfu uplifts all humanity against the subjugation of tyrants. She mentors the true meaning of citizen protests (this is not activist chic). She encourages all of us to recognize the truth behind the daunting task of raising one’s voice as a witness against corruption. Above all she strikes a great blow against the Chinese government’s inhuman treatment of its citizens and its inability to protect its precious women children.

Nanfu’s camera is the global eye that witnesses the key events during this summer of protest, activism, and struggle against government persecution and retaliation. She reveals the parallel synergy of Sparrow’s boundless enthusiasm and Wang Yu’s stolid, logical determination. Both are vital ways to fight unjust, systemic governmental malfeasance. This award winning film Hooligan Sparrow officially selected at Sundance and The Human Rights Watch Film Festival and countless other festivals is a must see. It opens its NYC premiere at Cinema Village on July 22nd and will be aired on PBS October 17th.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' ( 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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