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Sundance Review: Nanfu Wang’s Remarkable Documentary Debut ‘Hooligan Sparrow’

Sundance Review: Nanfu Wang's Remarkable Documentary Debut 'Hooligan Sparrow'

Nanfu Wang’s “Hooligan Sparrow” is a film that documents just how dangerous it is to be a women’s rights activist in China, observing the life of Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. Sparrow, but it also reveals the danger and difficulty in making a film on this topic. Freedom to make the kind of art you want to make is a liberty that can be taken for granted, and “Hooligan Sparrow” is a vital reminder of the importance of artistic and journalistic freedom, and that telling certain stories can be an inherently perilous proposition — especially when those stories reveal something that the government would rather keep under wraps.

The element of danger is introduced right away, as filmmaker Wang identifies herself on screen, seconds before she’s surrounded by an angry mob of men on the street, demanding her camera and threatening to beat her. This is a scene she returns to at the end, a bookend of her journey spending the summer documenting the life and work of artist-activist Sparrow. It’s a journey that involves Wang being interrogated by government security forces, stalked by secret police, targeted while her friends are questioned about her whereabouts, and forced to hide out while fearing for her safety and never knowing if her footage will make it out of China intact. 

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All of this is the result of her association with Ye Haiyan, known by her activist name Sparrow, or Hooligan Sparrow. She’s a women’s rights activist who has used provocative methods to call attention to issues, such as using her own nudity in videos and images, and offering free sex to migrant workers to call attention to the conditions for sex workers. Sparrow is forthright, unflappable, and strangely calm. Her resolute nature is almost a relief, because she never questions her work. She fights for what is right, and doesn’t fear arrest or death. Her mantra? “You can kill me but you can’t kill the truth.”

Early on in their journey, Wang travels with Sparrow and a group of activists to Hainan, where news of a sex abuse scandal has broken. An elementary school principal brought several girls aged 11-14 to a hotel for an overnight stay with a government official, where they were raped. The punishment for rape in China is the death penalty, but for child prostitution, the sentence is only 5-15 years, which creates a loophole for rapists to get away with their crimes by claiming they paid their victims. This is the case in Hainan, and unfortunately throughout other cities as well. A lawyer working with Sparrow says that the government is so corrupt that it’s become fashionable to sexually abuse young girls, thanks to the child prostitution law loophole. 

This protest is the root of the conflict that persists throughout the timeline of “Hooligan Sparrow.” She calculates that they won’t arrest them for fear of more attention brought upon the incident, and they don’t. But an image of her with a cheeky sign (“Hey Principal, how about a night with me instead of those girls?”) goes viral and the scandalous attention is a fly in the government cover up ointment. The police go to horrifying lengths to silence her. They hire crowds of thugs to harass her and her family, arrest her for assault when she’s attacked, falsify evidence, and just plain refuse to provide assistance when she or her lawyers or advocates call to report harassment. 

The majority of “Hooligan Sparrow” documents this treatment by the police, and Wang herself goes to extreme lengths just to capture evidence of these events. Her camera is seen as a threat and is almost constantly under attack. She’s forbidden from filming certain things, and relies on secretly recorded audio, cell phone videos, and even a camera concealed in a set of eyeglasses to capture some of the more shocking events. All of these bits of footage and audio are knit together to create the jarring, scary experiences that these women face as activists and artists. The film has a rough-hewn quality to it, but these raw and heart-pounding scenes are filled with dread and evoke an immediate sense of chaos and violence.

The conundrum in all of this is that Sparrow’s wide-reaching message online and the virtual support that she has received is what makes her a target for the government and police, but all the viral success that she has can’t prevent her from violence in her own town, or being detained for weeks on end, or being evicted from her apartment, or kicked out of hotel after hotel until the police dump her and her daughter on the street. The volume of her message is what gives her message power, but it also creates a cesspool of chaos around her everyday life, engineered by a government afraid of a woman who will expose their dirty secrets. 

“Hooligan Sparrow” isn’t a perfect film — Wang has to overly rely on her own voiceover to fully articulate some of the intricacies of the story, and there are moments where you wish she had probed further into Sparrow’s background. How or why did she become involved in activism? The film doesn’t widen its scope much further beyond the few months that the filmmaker and activist spent together, and sometimes the focus of the film gets lost — is it about the specific event in Hainan or Sparrow’s biography?

Regardless of the storytelling issues, it’s a remarkable piece, simply in that this footage was captured and made it out of China and is able to be seen. It demonstrates Wang’s enormous potential as a filmmaker (this is her first feature), and expresses the power of documentation as a weapon against oppression. Sparrow cuts an inspiring figure, and “Hooligan Sparrow” both lionizes and humanizes the activist, capturing a slice of what it means to fight for women in a country that desperately tries to suppress you. [B+]

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