Berlin Feminist Film Week 2017: Hooligan Sparrow Review

Ye Haiyan, a.k.a Hooligan Sparrow, is a human right’s activist in a league of her own. She began her work as an AIDS and sex worker’s rights activist in 2005. For two days in early 2012 she offered free sex to migrant workers to shed light on the brutal conditions of sex workers in China and thus garnered a lot of international attention. Documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang shot, edited and co-wrote Hooligan Sparrow (Hai nan zhi hou) while following Sparrow’s activism during the summer of 2013. Sparrow and her activist friends travel to Hainan Province to protest the case of Principal Chen Zaipeng and government official Feng Xiaoson who raped six underage schoolgirls. The principal claims that they paid the girls $2000, which resulted in them being charged with the lesser offence of child prostitution.

Hooligan Sparrow’s story interweaves the intimidation, imprisonment, evictions and police harassment that she and her colleagues face. Throughout filming Wang finds herself a target of the Chinese regime’s surveillance and intimidation tactics. She is threatened but continues to document using her DSLR camera, concealed recording devices, hidden camera glasses and cell phones. The degree of surveillance that is conducted is unquantifiable because distinguishing the secret police from normal citizens is not an easy task.

Hooligan Sparrow uses social media to engage international support for her activism. Supporters online repost and make memes of an image of her holding a sign that reads, “Hey principal: get a room with me and leave the kids alone!”. Internationally renowned activist and artist Ai Weiwei, who has also been targeted and secretly detained by the Chinese government, is one of her better-known collaborators.

The camera movement is sometimes a bit shaky and unsettling, which adds to the tense and urgent mood. Wang is often forced to hold the camera at her side to film undetected. She encounters the hostility of state authorities and gangs who threaten the protests and even Sparrow at her own apartment. It is extremely unnerving.

The montage of Sparrow and her fellow activists holding signs detailing their imprisonment leaves a lasting impression. Sparrow’s human rights lawyer Wang Yu has been in prison since 2015, an indication of how China detains their political prisoners for indefinite periods of time.

Wang’s courageous documentary has won international acclaim and various awards in the festival circuit, quite notably the Truer Than Fiction Award at the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards. She is a filmmaker to follow as her no-holds-barred style and the close relationships that she forges with her subjects are invaluable. Her honest and gritty portrayal of the human rights violations occurring in present-day China is riveting.

Stars: 4.5 out of 5 
Genre: Documentary 
Cast: Ye Haiyan 
Director: Nanfu Wang
Writers: Nanfu Wang, Mark Monroe
Rating: F 
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Languages: Mandarin, English
Country: China, USA
Production Company: Little Horse Crossing the River

by Lindsay Bellinger
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