When you meet first-time director Nanfu Wang, you have no doubt that she’s suffered greatly. There’s a tremulous vulnerability about her and a slight quaver in her voice when she speaks. This isn’t shyness or timidity or even hesitation due to linguistic hurdles, but emotional trauma of being bullied and watched while filming the protests of Hooligan Sparrow, Haiyan Ye, as she and her small band of supporters protested the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. Wang’s “Hooligan Sparrow” airs on on PBS POV on Oct. 17.
We never see the girls, aged 11-14, except on CCTV clips from the hotel to which they were taken and suffered sexual abuse. We see how Wang attempts to document the activism of Hooligan Sparrow but ultimately becomes part of the documentary, smuggling out video while under surveillance. Wang might have been stuck on a farm, in rural China, far from the developments of this growing economic giant, but she had a stubborn determination.
Hooligan Sparrow comes from a similar background. She is from rural China. Hooligan Sparrow gained notoriety by protesting the lack of HIV and AIDS education by offering free sex to laborers. Hooligan Sparrow was already a single mother. Married and divorced with a daughter in tow.
That is only background for this documentary. In 2013, six girls went missing for about 24 hours. When they were found, the girls and CCTV revealed
Wang, speaking at a small private gathering in the Hollywood hills, commented, “I was born in China. I grew up in a small village, no television until I was a teenager.” When she was 12, her father died. She got her first job at 16. She could tell stories about a lack of access to education, lack of access to health care. Her big opportunity came when she got a scholarship to the U.S. At first she thought she’d learn journalism. “Hooligan Sparrow” is her first film.
Going in, Wang felt: “I’m not an activist; I’m a filmmaker.” Yet to make this film, she asked friends of friends, students going to the U.S. to take the videos.
Recent events have devastated her. The lawyer who has not only defended Hooligan Sparrow, but other activists was arrested in July of last year. Her 16-year-old son was arrested the same day and detained from going on an exchange trip to Australia. He has been under house arrest since then.
“What changed the way that I thought was when the lawyer was arrested,” Wang explained. Now she says, “I am an activist. What does ‘an activist’ really mean? Someone who’s active. Then I’m an activist.”
You may say what you will about social media. In free societies like that of the U.S., social media might seem to run on gossip, scandals and risqué photos, but in countries like China, it is a valuable tool for protest. “That’s the only thing that actually gave me hope,” Wang commented.
Phrases and hashtags might briefly be able to get by the censors. Wang explained, “‘Hainan rape’ was not a sensitive phrase until it went viral.”
When asked if she is in danger, Wang does worry about two things: some kind of retaliation toward her family and whether she can return to China. Putting things in perspective, Wang said, “Sparrow’s life was ruined for protesting it” and she also noted, the girls, who are silent victims, “All believe that it’s their fault.” She explained “The parents later told us that the girls wanted to commit suicide.”
“Hooligan Sparrow” presses the point that all is not well in China. The economic prosperity doesn’t mean everyone shares, even under communism. Corrupt officials barter children for favors; girls are commodities like everything else. Art can be political and social media can help a small protest have big results. Wang said that in the end, Hooligan Sparrow was ruined and the lawyer seen in the documentary, Wang Yu, has been imprisoned along with many other human rights lawyers (including her husband) in China. Wang Yu’s son was scheduled to study in Australia and instead attempted to escape, was kidnapped and forcibly returned to China (Beijin) where he is currently under house arrest.
The documentary “Hooligan Sparrow” is being used to gather support for the freeing of Wang Yu (#FreeWangYu). This 90-minute documentary is a portrait in courage, of women defending other women and gaining some results at heavy personal costs. “Hooligan Sparrow” premieres on PBS on 17 October 2016. Check local listings.