An Action-Thriller of a Political Documentary
#40: Hooligan Sparrow (2016/English and Mandarin, with English subtitles)
Director: Nanfu Wang
Street Date: December 13, 2016/KINO LORBER
To be a political activist in an authoritarian society takes great courage. It also takes courage in such a society to document that activism, as Nanfu Wang’s first film, Hooligan Sparrow, demonstrates. Ostensibly a profile of the feminist activist Ye Haiyan (who goes by the name Hooligan Sparrow), this film winds up being as much as anything a testament to the difficulty of its own creation.
Ye is a single parent, a women who “discovered” feminism in 2005 and who has taken the path of the prophet/activist, embodying protest in ways that are impossible to ignore and guaranteed to offend. She garnered headlines in 2010 when, as part of her advocacy for sex workers, she provided sexual services in a brothel for free for two days. Ye has also used nudity in photos posted for political messaging, including a 2014 photo advocating for a U.N. discussion on women’s rights in China. That photo earned her 10 days in jail for “intentionally displaying nudity in a public space” (Ye’s personal Sina Weibo account).
“Hooligan Sparrow” is a gripping reminder of how precious the right to protest is, and how far authoritarian systems will go to silence dissent.
Hooligan Sparrow follows Ye through the aftermath of a different protest – for children’s rights – after a schoolmaster and government official were accused of raping six young schoolgirls, with a tepid response from the authorities. Ye organized a public protest against the crimes, and in her usual audacious style held up a sign saying, “Principles: if you want to get a room, come find me. Leave the girls alone.”
We take for granted the right to protest in this country, even as we argue over taking a knee during the anthem, or blocking the construction of a pipeline, or just exactly which lives matter. But Hooligan Sparrow is a gripping reminder of how precious that right to protest is, and how far authoritarian systems will go to silence dissent. Ye is hounded from place to place because of her activism, threatened by police and nameless thugs alike, evicted from her apartment, and in one heartbreaking shot, left stranded in the middle of the road with all her belongings. Ye’s young teen daughter, Yaxin, is also subject to this mistreatment, but still has a surprisingly stoic attitude toward seeing Ye threatened, arrested, and even beaten. Yaxin’s internal fortitude surely must come from her mother: Ye is fiery in her work, but also funny and gregarious; a warm and affectionate mother whose youthful face belies her age (late 30s during the making of this film.) The emotional toll of fighting a Goliath seems to fall more on Ye’s lawyer and fellow activist, Wang Yu. She advocates tirelessly for Ye when she is detained, filing appeals she knows will be ignored. Wang Yu believes that speaking for human rights matters, even when there is no victory in sight. In a gut-wrenching coda to Hooligan Sparrow, text on screen informs viewers that Wang Yu was arrested along with a number of other human rights lawyers in the summer of 2015, and at the time of the film’s release a year later remained in detention.
Ye, Yaxin and Wang Yu all display their varied styles of heroism throughout Hooligan Sparrow, but so does Nanfu Wang, who is repeatedly harassed and has to fight to save her film and camera. Ultimately, the camera is lost, but enough film is preserved to have made this documentary. Chaotic scenes of the film maker trying to flee the police or fight off assailants are genuinely frightening to watch (the propulsive music is effective, but almost unnecessary under such circumstances). Nanfu Wang knew that making this film was dangerous, but like the lawyer, Wang Yu, and the activist, Ye Haiyan, Nanfu Wang believes bearing witness matters. As she says near the end of Hooligan Sparrow, “When you are repressed and defenseless, the only thing you can do is document the atrocities.” Most Americans have no idea what kind of courage is required to speak and keep on speaking when the power of the state is against you. In a time of rapid and unpredictable political change we might have some things to learn from Nanfu Wang, “Hooligan Sparrow” and the other brave activists featured in this film.