"Hooligan Sparrow"
Nanfu Wang "Hooligan Sparrow"

Editor's note: As Sundance begins we’ll no doubt start to hear impressive stories about how great films overcame the challenges of no money, skeleton crews and long hours. Few filmmakers, however, will have endured the obstacles Nanfu Wang faced in getting her film "Hooligan Sparrow" to Park City. The documentary follows maverick activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a Hooligan Sparrow) and her band of colleagues to Hainan Province in southern China to protest the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. Marked as enemies of the state, the activists are under constant government surveillance and face interrogation, harassment and imprisonment. In documenting their journey, Wang also became a target of the Chinese government which, as you’d imagine, isn’t ideal if you are trying to shoot a movie. So how did Wang pull it off? We’ll let her tell you.

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"If you film us, we’ll break your camera." These are the words I hear in my head whenever I’m asked about my experience of filming "Hooligan Sparrow." Those words were spoken by one of many men who surrounded me as I tried to film on a street in China in the summer of 2013. I was following a prominent human rights activist, Ye Haiyan (a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow), as she was chased across China by uniformed police, secret police and mobs of shouting people because of her activism.

I shot almost my entire film with a Canon 60D DSLR camera. A few other shots were from a point-and-shoot camera, and a few more were filmed using a micro camera embedded in a pair of glasses. Because large, professional video equipment would have drawn more attention to me (not to mention my subjects), it would have been impractical, if not dangerous, to work with more elaborate equipment.

This is to say nothing of my sound recording situation — I was too concerned about drawing attention to myself to mount a shotgun mic on my camera, so most of the audio was recorded with the camera’s on-board microphone. In one scene, in which I was interrogated by a Chinese national security agent about my activities, I wasn’t able to use a camera at all; in this situation I hid a sound recorder under my dress.

Sometimes, though, my efforts to remain inconspicuous weren’t enough. In one instance, the activist I was following called the police to ask for protection from a mob that was threatening her. The police arrived, but they ended up interrogating the activist instead. I knew the moment would be important for the film, so I put on the pair of glasses with an embedded camera to try and film the encounter. In the film, you see the police officer looking around the room, and then he does a double take at me. He takes a step forward. “Let me see your glasses,” he says. I try to convince him that they’re regular glasses. He wasn’t convinced. 

Beyond the challenges of filming in China, there also was the challenge of getting my footage out of the country. At one point, I tried to ship a hard drive full of footage back to the U.S., which is where I live currently. Luckily the person at the shipping office told me that all media mail is inspected before it leaves China. I ended up having friends bring the drives one by one to the States during different trips.

As stressful, challenging and frightening as making my film often was, my film’s subjects experienced much more severe consequences than I did. Sparrow, my film’s main character, was evicted from two apartments, imprisoned, attacked by mobs of people and placed under house arrest. Two other activists, Wang Yu and Jia Lingmin, still are in prison today simply for trying to advance human rights in China. 

Nanfu Wang filming Ye Haiyan's belongings at the Brooklyn Museum
Nanfu Wang filming Ye Haiyan's belongings at the Brooklyn Museum

A Note about the above photo: During the 2014 Brooklyn Museum retrospective of the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, an entire room was dedicated to the personal belongings of the women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan.  

In June of 2013, Ye Haiyan was kidnapped by Chinese secret police and forcibly evicted from the city of Zhongshan and her possessions were dumped alongside a road. When Ai Wei Wei heard this news, he helped Ye Haiyan financially and managed to obtain all of her belongings, whereby his studio created an installation piece to call attention to struggle for freedom of expression in China. 

"Hooligan Sparrow" premieres today (Friday) at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre and plays at the Tower Theatre on Saturday at 9pm.

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