Documentary by Nanfu Wang chronicles brave fight for justice by activist Ye Haiyan, aka Hooligan Sparrow
[Update: Hooligan Sparrow to air on PBS POV Monday, October 17]
It takes a certain courage to be an activist in any country -- a willingness to endure ridicule and abuse in service to deeply held beliefs.
In China the stakes are much higher -- anyone who dares take on the role of activist risks humiliation, physical attack and imprisonment. Despite the danger, a woman known as Hooligan Sparrow has spoken out on behalf of sexually abused children, women's rights and for the rights of sex workers, among other causes. In response she's been beaten, harassed, detained by police and thrown out of her lodgings on multiple occasions.
In the eyes of government officials those activists are troublemakers. They are hooligans. The government wanted to get rid of, or try to silence them. And so she chose that name as sort of like a rebellion...
Sparrow's efforts to bring justice to a group of teenage girls raped by their school principal and a government official in Hainan Province -- and the consequences of her protest -- are documented in the new film Hooligan Sparrow by director Nanfu Wang. The film opens Friday for a one-week engagement at the Laemmle Music Hall theater in Beverly Hills after recently playing in New York. It also screens at the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan this Friday and Sunday.
[Update: PBS POV will air Hooligan Sparrow beginning Monday, October 17]
There is no doubting the bravery of Sparrow and her fellow activists -- one of whom, human rights lawyer Wang Yu, remains in prison for alleged"subversion of state power." But the bravery of director Wang is no less striking -- the Chinese-born filmmaker risked imprisonment herself for documenting Sparrow's story. There are harrowing moments in the film when she is roughed up by men who broke her camera, menaced by authorities and shadowed by possible government agents.
Wang makes her home in New York for the time being. She came to Los Angeles for a screening of her film at a private home in the Hollywood Hills, which is where Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with her. [Wang will take part in a Q&A this Friday after the 7:40 pm screening at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills].
Nonfictionfilm.com: Where does the name Hooligan Sparrow come from?
Nanfu Wang: Her Chinese name is Ye Haiyan. Ye means sparrow. She became known on the internet for the nickname Hooligan Sparrow. It's a social media handle. And the reason she did that was because in the eyes of government officials activists [like her] are troublemakers. They are hooligans. The government wanted to get rid of, or try to silence them. And so she chose that name as sort of like a rebellion, and also because of her sense of humor.
Nonfiction film.com: How did you gain Sparrow's trust given that, I imagine, when she meets someone new she is probably concerned they might actually be a government spy or informer.
Wang: I contacted her when I was in New York saying, "I'm a filmmaker, I wanted to make a film. Can I meet you?" She said, "Come back to China and we can talk." So when I arrived in China I called her but she wouldn't pick up the phone. And then I would leave messages and she wouldn't respond. I kept calling and texting... I finally got her to agree to meet me and I went to the place we scheduled and she didn't show up. So the next day I called and said, "Yesterday I waited for you for two hours." And she's like, "Oh, I'm sorry. I was busy." So this happened a few times to a point that I almost said, "Okay, I'm not going to make a movie on a person like this who is not reliable."
She said, 'Have you thought about it? It's really risky. You have not experienced any protests. You are not part of this world. Are you sure you want to go? And I said, 'Yes, I'm sure.'
Wang: I eventually met her and it changed all the doubts and suspicions and everything. Because I learned that the reason she couldn't talk on the phone with me or even agree to meet me was she was in the middle of planning that protest [against the school principal and government official who raped six students] and everything was kept in secret. It was that night that she decided to go to the protest the next day. She saw that I had my camera and she said, "Can you help us record that video?" I said, "I will go with you." She said, "Have you thought about it? It's really risky. You have not experienced any protests. You are not part of this world. Are you sure you want to go?" And I said, "Yes, I'm sure and I don't care about the consequences." She saw the determination. Like no spies would do that. I think that's when she really trusted me and opened up to me.
Note: At the protest Sparrow held a hand-drawn sign with a provocative message typical of her in-your-face activism: "Hey principal: get a room with me and leave the kids alone!"
Police showed up to effectively disperse the small demonstration, but Wang credits it with increasing public attention on the case, which led prosecutors to seek more serious charges against the defendants. The principal [Chen Zaipeng] and the government official [Feng Xiaosong] were eventually convicted of rape and sentenced, respectively, to 13 years and 11 years in prison.
The victims, however, continue to be traumatized -- and stigmatized, with the hint that they were somehow engaged in prostitution. Protesters allege the girls -- and other children across China -- were grabbed by school administrators and delivered to government officials as "sexual bribes."
Nonfictionfilm.com: Do you feel like you're in exile from China?
Wang: I don't know. I think people who are in exile are sure that they cannot go back. But for me I haven't tried. And I hope that I'm not an exile because my whole family is still in China and I do want to go back where my family and friends are.
Nonfictionfilm.com: It must be awfully difficult to be away from them for so long.
Wang: Yes. And it's more difficult even for my mom because I think it's always true that the parents feel it harder if they can't see their children. For me I always explained to her that this is a thing that I wanted to do [documentary filmmaking] and she couldn't understand. "There are so many other careers that you could choose. Why do you have to choose this?"
Nonfictionfilm.com: In the United States we have much more freedom to speak out against the government or basically say whatever we want within certain limits. How frustrating is it for someone fighting for a more just society in China -- it's hard to create change if you can't communicate with people.
Wang: The nature of a human is to have more rights and freedom and I think the first step is to create that awareness so that people realize they have very limited information, that they are kept from the rest of the world. Then they would want to create change, even though it's a slow and long process and probably requires a lot of people's efforts and sacrifice. But it's going to happen because history, if you look at any government they could not last long if they stay in that way to deprive people's basic rights.
Nonfictionfilm.com: My sense of China -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is that the government, and perhaps many ordinary people, regard protesters like Sparrow as essentially betraying the country -- that by pointing out wrongdoing or injustice they are harming China's image. It's as if the attitude is, "You should look at the big picture. Look at the progress we have made. Your protests are inappropriate and harmful." Am I on to anything there?
Wang: Some of my friends would say [to me], "Why are you exposing things like this? You are creating a negative image of our society." And there is an analogy -- in China we were taught in school that your country is like your mother and no matter how ugly she is you don't criticize her because you love her. That's what we were taught, I would say somehow like a brainwashing education. But there is a misconception in there because a country is not your mom. And the Party's not the country. The government is not the country. Country is country. They're two different things. You love your country but that doesn't mean you don't criticize the government. The government is temporary; the government is an ideological thing.
Nonfictionfilm.com: What are your hopes for the film, for the impact it might have?
Wang: At the beginning I was frustrated like, "Why is [there] no immediate change?" But then I realized that the change takes time and it was really important to create awareness because that's the first step leading to change. If any change would happen first there should be a massive awareness of the issue and that's my hope not only outside of China but within China as well. Before I made this film I did not know anything that happened [to Sparrow and people like her]. And still there are a lot of people who are not aware of this... The narrative that they got [from official media] is now China is so much better. The economy is much more developed and people's lives are much better and very few people realize that human rights violations are still going on and even probably worse to a certain extent.
So my hope is really for people to become aware of this and then hopefully that will be something that will lead to change.
Nonfictionfilm.com: Do you think your film will ever be shown in China?
Wang: We've shown it in Hong Kong and Taiwan and we're working our ways to show it in China -- not publicly but through some -- we try to be strategic and circulate the film widely underground.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.