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Sundance 2016 Women Directors: Meet Nanfu Wang – ‘Hooligan Sparrow’

Sundance 2016 Women Directors: Meet Nanfu Wang - 'Hooligan Sparrow'

Nanfu Wang is an independent filmmaker based in New York City. Wang was born in a remote farming village in Jiangxi Province, China. Realizing that she wanted to help tell the stories of people who came from backgrounds like hers, Wang decided to pursue graduate film studies, first in the journalism school at Ohio University and later at New York University’s documentary program. Wang is a recipient of the Sundance Documentary Fund and the Bertha Britdoc Journalism Fund and a Sundance and IFP-supported filmmaker. “Hooligan Sparrow” is her feature debut. (Press materials)

“Hooligan Sparrow” will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 22.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

NW: Filmed on the run with hidden cameras, pocket recorders and a camera built into a pair of glasses, “Hooligan Sparrow” tells the shocking story of the fight for human rights in China from its frontlines.

When two Chinese government officials who sexually abused six schoolgirls are poised to receive light sentences, famed women’s rights advocate Ye Haiyan [who is known more widely by her nickname, Hooligan Sparrow, in China] leads a group of activists in a protest. Sparrow is subsequently arrested, evicted from her home and chased from town to town by violent mobs. But the government is unable to control the ensuing social-media backlash, and Sparrow’s protest goes viral.

I followed Sparrow with my camera, eventually becoming a target myself: Chinese national security agents harassed my family, intimidated my friends and summoned me for interrogation.

“Hooligan Sparrow” reveals firsthand how far the Chinese government will go to silence dissent and protect its own interests.  

W&H: What drew you to this story?

I first heard about Ye Haiyan a few years ago when I read an article online about a Chinese woman who was offering to work as a sex worker — for free. I’ve lived in China most of my life, and I’ve always been interested in issues related to sex workers’ rights, so I was curious to learn more about this woman and what motivated her.

The brothel where she offered to work was one of thousands across China known as “Ten Yuan Brothels,” which are frequented by the poorest of China’s migrant laborers. The brothels take their name from the average price of a visit with one of their working girls — ten yuan, or about two dollars.

Sparrow had a long history of advocating for women’s rights in China, and her offer of free sex in the Ten Yuan Brothel stemmed from a desire to expose the terrible working conditions in the brothel and also the desperate lives of the migrant workers who visited them.

As I researched Sparrow, I learned that, like me, she came from a poor farming village with limited access to education. I appreciated her respect for people whom Chinese society rejected, and I shared her desire to understand their lives more deeply.

I reached out to her via e-mail in early 2013 to see if she’d be willing to let me film her as part of a larger video project about sex workers in China. She replied, “When you’re in China, we’ll talk.” That’s when the film’s production began.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

NW: Getting the footage out of China was one of the biggest challenges. Because we were constantly on the run, I couldn’t leave my hard drives anywhere. I carried all of my footage with me everywhere I went. I was always afraid that my footage would be seized and destroyed, or that it would be seen by the authorities and used against my subjects.

At one point, I tried to ship a drive to the US, but I realized I was followed on the way to the shipping office, and I was afraid that my drive would be taken. I rushed back to the office and retrieved my drive. Luckily, I had a few friends who were traveling to the U.S. who were willing to bring the drive back in person.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

NW: I hope that people around the world will see the film and appreciate how desperate China’s human rights situation is. The narrative about China now seems to be that it’s this powerhouse of economic development and that it’s rising on the world stage. But the life situation of the average Chinese person is hidden from the world’s view.

I hope people who see the film also will appreciate how hard the Chinese government is trying to suppress voices of dissent, as well as people who try to show the world what really is going on there.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

NW: My advice to female directors is the same as my advice to any director: I don’t feel that there’s anything male directors can do that I can’t. Pick up a camera and go shoot. With today’s technology, even a smartphone can shoot a feature film.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

NW: I think that there is a sense of fatigue among audiences for issue films, and I hope that people won’t hear about my film and assume it’s just another one of them. It’s happened many times that when a person finally saw it, he/she came to me and said that they were surprised that the film is more than a lecture about human rights and activism. I want to tell a story that will surprise and inspire people.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

NW: I self-financed the initial trip to China, as well as the production. After I returned to the states, for a long time I took day jobs and edited the film during my spare time.

Fundraising was a difficult and slow process; it wasn’t until I had a rough cut that I finally received investment funds and then a post-production grant from the Sundance Institute, both of which opened many doors for me.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

NW: “The House Is Black” by Iranian filmmaker and poet Forough Farrokhzad. “The House Is Black” features people with leprosy in a colony. The filmmaker captures the lepers’ daily lives and their joy, sorrow, activity and boredom. It struck me that a film can feel like a poem, and one can use a camera to show the beauty in almost everything.

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