Hooligan Sparrow, Nanfu Wang’s astonishing documentary about corruption in China, opened this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Many Chinese dissidents take on a pseudonym in order to protect their identity. Artist and activist Ye Haiyan, aka Hooligan Sparrow, does not attempt to hide herself – in fact she shot to notoriety in China after offering “free sex to migrant workers” in an attempt to highlight sex workers’ rights. Wang joins Sparrow and a group of fellow activists in Hainan Province in southern China where they are highlighting the case of six elementary school girls, between the ages of eleven and fourteen, who had been allegedly raped by their principal and a government official.
Sparrow posed with a sign that read: “Principal: get a room with me. Leave the school kids alone.” The image went viral on Weibo (China’s Twitter) and thousands showed support by posting images of themselves holding similar signs. It soon becomes clear that Sparrow and her colleagues are under constant surveillance and Wang swiftly finds herself a target as well. Her friends and family (who don’t even realise she is in China) are visited by national security agents. In a particularly haunting scene, the female activists are filmed affirming that if anything happens to them, it is murder rather than suicide. Following the protests, Sparrow is assaulted in her home and is then arrested for attempting to defend herself. Wang accompanies Sparrow’s lawyer, Wang Yu, to the prison in an attempt to visit her, but they are denied entry. On this occasion, the public outcry and media attention results in Sparrow’s quick release. However, she continues to be followed, is intimated by a bunch of thugs presumably in the pay of the government and is eventually hounded out of her home.
Wang documents all this on a hand held camera and, when necessary, uses recording devices concealed in her shorts and camera glasses. Many activists visit Sparrow to pay their respects and show support but it is hard to trust them all – some may be government stooges. The level of attention and harassment suffered by Sparrow and her fellow activists is breathtaking. It also proves a memorable rites of passage for Wang – shooting her first feature – who becomes increasingly paranoid and, on occasion, fears for her life. Hooligan Sparrow is a chilling reminder of the extent of state repression and corruption in China, where child abuse is also rife – children can be offered as “gifts” to government officials.
People wanting justice for these children are themselves persecuted. All the activists involved in the protest which opens Wang’s film have been detained. Because of their actions and the national outcry, the men were finally prosecuted with rape and the law relating to sex with underage prostitutes has since been changed. (At the time, the criminal code gave lesser sentences to child rapists if they could define their actions as child prostitution – now all sex with children under fourteen years of age is classified as rape.) But at what price? Sparrow and her daughter continue to be intimidated. Sparrow’s lawyer, Wang Yu has been detained, accused of subversion, and faces a life sentence. Hooligan Sparrow documents these crimes against humanity and deserves as wide an audience as possible.