This post was originally written by Kait Halibozek for Picture Motion’s blog. To learn more about Picture Motion, visit picturemotion.com.
We were lucky enough to spend 10 minutes speaking with filmmaker Nanfu Wang about her film. Here’s what we learned about Hooligan Sparrow and the issues addressed in it.
Have you ever seen a documentary and thought to yourself, “I can’t believe they filmed that and lived to tell it”? If you haven’t, you most certainly will after watching Nanfu Wang’s gripping film Hooligan Sparrow, about the eponymous Chinese women’s rights activist. Due to state surveillance in Wang’s home country of China, she had to be extremely careful when shooting the film, utilizing hand-held and hidden cameras for most of the production. She even faced physical violence while telling the story of Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. “Hooligan Sparrow,” who had risen to prominence in the activist community in China via social media for drawing attention to a sexual assault case in which young girls were raped by their school administrator.
It really was as dangerous as it looked: When Ms. Wang began shooting the documentary, she wasn’t prepared for what was going to happen. After a week of shooting she realized she couldn’t use a tripod or DSLR camera, so she had to research other types of cameras and tools, such as a pair of glasses complete with a hidden camera and memory card. She had to find a way to film and document the things that were happening in a way that wouldn’t bring more attention to herself or the subject.
As seen in the film, Hooligan Sparrow and other activists staged a protest about a child rape case, and the images from the protest quickly spread across social media. Police officers were “smart” in that they did not arrest anyone at the protests. Instead, they waited until a few days later, and arrested Sparrow on the charge of assault when a group of people broke into her apartment and attacked her. The police made up a crime the day after the attack and arrested Sparrow for “assaulting” the three people who broke into her house — so in the media it didn’t look like she was arrested for the protest, even though the charges against her were clearly made up so she would be arrested.
China has a lot of plainclothes officers on the streets: Before making the film, Ms. Wang didn’t know that there were so many secret police working on the streets, even though she grew up in China. During the daytime, ordinary people would not know or pay extra attention if someone was accosted by plainclothes police. People were indifferent to it.
Another dangerous thing about making this film is the “bubble” that law enforcement officers in China live in. When I spoke with Ms. Wang, she told me the story of an interaction she had had with plainclothes officers. They followed Ms. Wang and her team down the street, and were riding motorbikes. The officers said that they didn’t want to be doing this, but that they had to find out where the film team was going. The officers’ job was to report where they were going and what they were doing – they revealed their identities and told the film team their lives would be easier if they would just tell them what was going on. The police officers live in a type of bubble. They didn’t understand what the activists were doing – this is all because of the government.
China’s government controls the “official” narrative: Before shooting Hooligan Sparrow, Ms. Wang did not know how prevalent sex abuse and sex work is in China – or how corrupt it all is. The official narrative is controlled by the state, and there is very little room for people to have access to information other than what is reported in the papers and on TV. There are people trying to create different narratives, and this made Ms. Wang realize how much the government is targeting filmmakers, and how far they go to try to silence someone that is telling a story that may fall outside the official narrative.
The majority of the people get their information from the official state-run media so when they depicted Hooligan Sparrow as a prostitute, there was a lot of shaming. That was people’s idea of this artist, without getting to know her. It was very difficult to change people’s minds because of what they had seen on TV and read in the papers, even though Hooligan Sparrow’s social media made it clear that she was an activist who went undercover as a prostitute in order to show people how corrupt and abusive China’s sex work industry was.
In the wake of the results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, films like Hooligan Sparrow are increasingly relevant and important, and we thank Nanfu Wang for her courage to make this film and to take the time to speak with us. Ms. Wang is a great example of what makes documentary filmmaking so important: to expose injustice and share the truths that deserve to heard. We hope Ms. Wang inspires storytellers around to world to continue to create powerful documentaries about their own communities and beyond.
Nanfu Wang is the 2016 recipient of the International Documentary Association’s Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award.