Chinese documentary Hooligan Sparrow has been garnering intentional praise after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the US. Starring the eponymous Sparrow, aka outspoken women’s rights icon Ye Haiyan, the film follows a group of activists as they wage a war against corruption and sexual violence in China.
Originally from a village in Jiangxi, director Nanfu Wang moved to the US in 2011 to study documentary filmmaking, returning to China in 2013 with plans to document Chinese sex workers. But Wang shares that the documentary evolved once Ye’s team of activists got involved in a scandal in Hainan, where a school principal and a government official were alleged to have raped six girls aged 11-14. Using a hidden camera on a pair of glasses, Wang was able to record the intimidation and violence directed at her and others in Ye’s team.
I was interested in Chinese sex workers’ story, their life and rights. So I contacted Ye Haiyan.
I realised that she was not working with any sex workers at the moment. But I didn’t stop and say, ‘This is not the film I wanted to make.’
I kept filming because I believed that someone needed to record what was happening and share it with the world.
I was surrounded and threatened by screaming mobs. They demanded that I give them my footage. I was never arrested, but seeing the activists being detained and knowing that I could be next made me live in a constant state of fear as I was working on this project.
Shot from May to August 2013, Hollywood Sparrow wrapped up post-production editing just last November. In January, it was screened at six venues in the US, apparently to rave reviews.
Now safely residing in New York, Wang also aspires for Hooligan Sparrow to be shown in Hong Kong and the mainland.
However, she also admits to being “very concerned” about the welfare of those depicted in the documentary, including human rights lawyer Wang Yu, who was formally arrested in January on charges of subversion after being in police detention since July.
Meanwhile, Hooligan Sparrow herself is reportedly carrying on her work in Wuhan, “still speaking out actively online” even after being punished with the confiscation of her passport in 2014. “I hope the film will raise awareness of her situation and allow people to see who she really is and what she does,” Wang expressed.
Here’s an excerpt from the Hollywood Reporter’s film review:
This guerrilla-style documentary is brave. The filmmaker, Nanfu Wang, also was subject to Chinese suppression and had to shoot this doc on the sly. Wang was under constant pressure, her equipment destroyed and her person threatened. Utilizing hidden-camera subterfuges and deceptively placed microphones, Wang has managed to uncover in the process another human-rights outrage in China, the thug-like nature of government’s intrusion into private lives.
Nearly the entire film is shot with hand-held cameras, with only personal interviews conducted in a non-hostile situation. Throughout, Wang makes a virtue out of necessity: Her on-the-run scoping and jarring cuts infuse the film with a sense of desperate danger befitting its subject matter.