Skip to main content

All Eyes on 'Sparrow': Documenting the Dangers of Activism in China

By Nayantara Roy

Human rights lawyer Wang Yu, one of the protagonists in Nanfu Wang’s <em>Hooligan Sparrow</em>. Courtesy of POV.

Nanfu Wang feels safe in New York. Surveillance, that essential preoccupation of the documentarian in America, is a chokehold from which she has been temporarily released. From her Brooklyn apartment, the Chinese filmmaker prepares for the release of her debut feature documentary, Hooligan Sparrow. Titled after its eponymous central subject, women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan, the film takes on, among other things, government censorship, police brutality and civil rights in China. 

Ye, better known as "Sparrow," is known for her methods of protest. In Hainan Province in southern China, to protest the case of six school girls who were sexually abused by their principal, Sparrow pickets with a sign that exclaims, "Hey Principal, get a room with me, leave the kids alone." The result, she hopes, will be an increase in the sentence from the mild prostitution charge - the shame of which its victims have to live with - to the death penalty for rape. In prior activism, to highlight the circumstances of sex workers, Sparrow has lived and worked in a brothel. The authorities are less than amused at her tactics, citizens are morally outraged, and both Sparrow and Wang spend most of Hooligan Sparrow on the run, looking over their shoulders. 

"In the beginning when I approached her, I had not met her yet," Wang reflects. "I saw her free sex campaign and I was curious: What kind of a woman was she, offering sex to migrant workers for free and doing this? Such radical activism. This was one of the reasons that drew me to this story." Wang, a recent graduate of the News and Documentary Program at NYU, had spent a few years in the US. Reading about Sparrow and the Hainan rape case in the national press, she decided to go back to China. "When I first met Sparrow, her obsession was protesting against the government - and always with many other activists and their lawyers," Wang notes. "I had just been reading about it. She and the activists would discuss how deeper this story was and how much was not there in the media." 

To Wang, a more ominous story began to emerge - one of police brutality, corruption and suppression of free speech. She follows Sparrow to the protest about the Hainan rape case, where the pervasive presence of secret police shocks Wang. Unable to distinguish between bystander and policeman, Wang senses a paranoia that will define her film. "About a week after the protest, my family called me," she recalls. "I hadn’t returned to them yet. I went straight to filming the day I landed in China. And I don’t usually tell my mom what exactly I do because she doesn’t really understand what a documentary is. I remember telling them I had to be somewhere else to work on a film. That’s all the information they knew. But my mom called me and said, ‘Your uncle and I both got phone calls from the national security agents. They were asking if you were back in China and if we knew where you are and what you are doing.’ I was shocked. My life has nothing to do with police, with national security agents. I was so nonpolitical. Why did they find me and talk to my family? So then I started thinking, Oh, it must be because I was at the protest. It must be because I was with Sparrow."

Cameras define this documentary. Wang’s cameras are threats to the government - and to her safety. Filming is treated with the deepest suspicion, and Wang suffered the consequences: broken cameras, physical and verbal abuse, and constant panic. The film itself is an ode to this fear - with shaky footage, as unvarnished as the violence it captures.

Wang relied on three cameras - a DSLR, a point-and-shoot, and a pair of glasses fitted with a microcamera. Wang filmed in a perpetual state of emergency, hiding and switching data cards of footage and uploading it before she could be found out. It worked; she lost a minimal amount of footage, and the remainder was smuggled in installments, with the help of friends, to the US. 

As the film progresses, a resemblance emerges in Sparrow and Wang’s unique brand of grit. This is especially resonant when Wang becomes a subject in her own film. "She came to look for her family in the village and so did I," the filmmaker explains. "She was the eldest among the three kids in her family and both her parents are farmers. And because they couldn’t afford her to go to school, she had to work at an early age. She had seen a lot of people who struggle at the bottom of the society. And for me, it’s similar. My mom said to me that she couldn’t afford me to go to high school and college. We all came from the bottom of society and struggled a lot. I wanted to show how unjust the educational and healthcare system were in China. I chose to make films; Sparrow chose to do activism." 

Activist Ye Haiyan, AKA Hooligan Sparrow, one of the protagonists in Nanfu Wang’s <em>Hooligan Sparrow</em>. Courtesy of POV.

Sparrow is a single mother, with an adolescent daughter, Yaxin. Perpetually on the run, Sparrow inevitably exposes Yaxin to the consequences of her activism. Yaxin has witnessed government officials harass her mother on several occasions. Yaxin’s vulnerability and resilience make her Wang’s most revealing subject - but the filmmaker objects to that term. "The word ‘subject’ is a very cold word to describe the relationship," Wang asserts. "There is not any sufficient word to describe that relationship because we stayed together. We ate together. We faced danger together and we protected each other. So it’s really like a family, and no longer a filmmaker’s subject. The night when Yaxin and I were upstairs while Sparrow and the others were arrested, the two of us were scared. She’s like my little sister."

As the film progresses, so does the government’s gaze on Wang. "It became clear to me it wasn’t any local authority’s decision," she notes. "It was from a higher governmental level that the order came. For the other activists, this is their day to day life. I couldn’t imagine how they could still live their life; I couldn’t take it any longer. I had nightmares every night. Whenever I walked on the streets, I looked for who might be following me. When I was in my house, I did not know when they would break in; they could do it anytime. I had to hide my appointments, my contacts in different drawers, closets. Every time I sent an email, I had to hide it. I really admire these activists because I felt that if I lived in China, I don’t think I would have the courage to continue doing it." 

That Wang finds China’s tactics and the invasion of her life so shocking points to a larger truth. As a child, she was sheltered from any knowledge of a police state, and was raised to revere her country instead. "I was really angry, more than afraid," she reflects. "I felt outraged that it could be possible that I lived here for more than 20 years and did not know any truths, did not know that activists live their lives like this and did not know how many secret police pass by along the streets. How could it be possible that they could still hide this and most people still did not know? Even though I told my friends and family what I experienced, most people didn’t believe me. Not even the Chinese students that study in America or in Europe. Because of the decades of a brainwashed education, it was really hard for them to think differently. My [Chinese] friends who are in the US call me politically biased. They say the film will create a negative image of our country, and that our country is our motherland. It’s like your mom. No matter how ugly your mom is, you shouldn’t criticize her. This is the analogy that was taught in school." 

Distribution of Wang’s film in China will be nearly impossible. But she has hope: "I think it has to be done through the underground cinemas and independent festivals. Some brave ones. And circulated among people secretly. I think a lot can be done. And Chinese people are really good at pirating."

Happily, the film’s festival and distribution journey has taken off in the US. In the film, young Yaxin asks Wang, "How many people will see this film?" Wang replies, "Maybe thousands." Supported by the Sundance Documentary Fund and the Bertha Britdoc Journalism Fund, and a project in IDA’s Fiscal Sponsorship Program, Hooligan Sparrow premiered in New York July 22 and opens in Los Angeles July 29 through The Film Collaborative. The film airs on POV in October, after which the film will stream on Netflix. Of the festival reception, Wang says, "I was pleasantly surprised that audiences, no matter which country they came from, shared the same response. People were outraged that China is like that. And I was surprised how many people came up and said to me that the film reminded them of their society, of their lives. People from ‘democratic’ countries. And there were American people who came to me and said it was totally universal." 

While taking a class at NYU called "The Politics of Witnessing," taught by photographer/filmmaker Peter Lucas, who eventually came on board as creative producer, Wang thought about the kind of film she would make. "Every week he would show a film that started with a very minimal crew," she explains. "Sometimes just one person. Or two. Always minimal, independent filmmakers with very low budgets. But the films were really creative, poetic and experimental. To me it was liberating to see films that didn’t need a huge crew or production team. As long as you have a vision and a story, you can do it." 

But Wang had a lot of footage that she was emotionally bound to, in complex ways. "The mentors at the first lab told me, ‘You are too close to the story. It would help to have an outside editor and not edit yourself.’ I didn’t know how much of myself to put in the story. It would have felt either self centered or not enough. So, I took their advice, but it was the rough cut stage and by then, looking for editors was like looking for a boyfriend or something." Wang shares the writing credit with Mark Monroe (Fed Up, Sound City), whom she credits for reshaping the film. "We started working together half a year before we premiered down to Sundance," she explains. "He’s a great storyteller and he could look at which scene could come before the other to help make it better. I think the amount of footage or the structure wasn’t that big a challenge. The advantage that I had was that it was part of my life. I remember every shot. I remember every scene. It’s part of something that almost changed my life." 

Wang is currently editing her next film: another documentary, set in Utah, about a strict Mormon father and a rebellious son. "It’s a story about the limits of personal freedom and the conflict with social expectation and moral obligation," she explains. "It’s a very interesting comparison to see life on the streets [in Utah] and life in China." 

But the realities of personal freedom on China’s streets, despite the role of activists like Sparrow, human rights lawyer Wang Yu and many others, remains grim. Sparrow is isolated and in hiding, far from any momentum that the film might bring her. Wang Yu remains imprisoned. Wang testifies to Sparrow’s loneliness: "It’s kind of surreal because she sees pictures and says, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ But then what? She still lives in a place that feels like a prison. I think she is conflicted all the time because she might put her daughter in danger or have her parents suffer. But if she really chooses not to do it, she feels disabled in a way. I think she constantly struggles with that."

Wang hopes for change, in China and in the ideology of Chinese citizens, and she wants her film to contribute to that change. But her idealism has shifted. "When I first released the film, I really wanted to make concrete, tactical changes: to have prisoners released, to change the law, to change the [lives of the] illegally detained," she asserts. "And then I talked to policymakers and activists who had been doing this for decades. In the end I realized that the people working on this were pressured. If there is no change within China, it will be really hard to have any change from outside, and unless a lot of people became aware of the issue, change would be really difficult. So my hope is to have as many people, especially Chinese people, see the film and start questioning what they see and hear, start thinking independently and notice things that were not in the media., that were not in the messages from the authorities. I want the film to plant a seed in peoples’ heads. And once that process begins, they will be able to understand more, whether from other independent filmmakers’ work or other artwork, literature or even the media. I think it’s a process of changing how they think. It’s not just about being a stable economy, but about the rights that people are deprived of. Especially if they did not know the rights they could have. They did not know to fight for [them]."

Nayantara Roy is a journalist and filmmaker currently pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia University.