Hooligan Sparrow

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hooligan Sparrow - traversing southern China, a group of activists led by Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow, protest a scandalous incident in which a school principal and a government official allegedly raped six students. Sparrow becomes an enemy of the state, but detentions, interrogations and evictions can’t stop her protest from going viral.
"The sheer volume of evidence Nanfu has amassed - material she had difficulty smuggling out of the country - is difficult to argue with."

It's tempting to think of modern China as a place where state interference has receded, where women's rights are generally respected and where ordinary citizens can, for the most part, depend on the law to resolve their problems. Nanfu Wang's coruscating documentary paints a very different picture. Originally returning to her homeland (from the US) to make a film about activist Ye Hainan's activism around sex work, she found her subject involved in campaigning on a different matter, and her decision to follow it up saw them both harassed, threatened, assaulted and trailed by the secret police across several provinces.

Ye Hainan, better known as Sparrow, first came to public notice in 2012 when she offered free sex to migrant workers in a ten yuan brothel. Despite the predictably sensationalist press this attracted, it was actually part of a project she was doing around sex workers' rights, which required her to properly understand the problems they and their customers faced so that she could identify ways of improving their working conditions. In one of a surprising number of humorous anecdotes scattered through this otherwise nerve-racking film, she explains how she used to ell sex workers that the free condoms she supplied came from the government, because they trusted the government, so when a customer asked her why she was giving away free sex, she felt obliged to say that was supplied by the government too.

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Alas, there's a bit of a gap between that Communist utopia and the reality of how the state functions today. The work Sparrow is doing when the film opens concerns a case in Hainan province in which two government officials took six schoolgirls into a hotel and apparently raped them. With the school trying to dampen down the scandal and the parents refusing to speak about it - perhaps because they have been threatened - there is no pressure to bring the accused men to trial. Sparrow and her fellow activists are seeking to change that. Nanfu finds herself drawn in, having obvious difficulty maintaining a professional distance from her subject. Naively, she talks to strangers and even lets them take photographs of her. It wasn't until she was editing her footage months later, she has revealed, that she realised some of those people followed her for hundreds of miles.

With a film like this, one must always exercise some caution. Are things as bad as they look, or are there elements of paranoia or propaganda involved? In this case, the sheer volume of evidence Nanfu has amassed - material she had difficulty smuggling out of the country - is difficult to argue with. There are the same faces in widely different locations. There are the crowds suddenly gathering in the street and shouting threats. There is footage of a group of brothel owners rattling the gate outside Sparrow's flat - two years after she had done anything to annoy them directly - and audio recording of a direct assault on her, witnessed by her daughter. A pivotal scene shows Nanfu surrounded by a group of men threatening to beat her up and destroy her camera.

The constant sense of danger faced by Nanfu herself makes for tense viewing, but the film is also interesting in its illustration of how activism continues to take place under pressure. In particular, it highlights the technological challenges facing the state, as social media allows one person to reach millions at a moment's notice and miniature cameras, audio recorders and data cards make it increasingly easy for anyone to make secret recordings. Like other nations around the world, China is struggling to adjust its politics to take account of the increasing power of the individual.

Although the issue of sexual abuse dealt with here are handled carefully and not sensationalised, some people will still find it difficult to watch. Suggestions that what has happened in the Hainan case could reflect a national problem are particularly chilling. Although there is no reference made here to similar problems elsewhere, such as that in the Catholic Church, it is helpful to view the film in that context: this isn't a uniquely Chinese failing but China may find it impossible to dismiss.

These complexities give Hooligan Sparrow a relevance that goes beyond Sparrow's own story and beyond Nanfu's scary but enlightening experience. It's a portrait of a country at a critical time in its history, and one with lessons for people everywhere.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2016
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Hooligan Sparrow packshot
A portrait of women's rights activist Ye Hainan, detailing her struggles with the Chinese authorities.

Director: Nanfu Wang

Starring: Ye Hainan, Wang Yu

Year: 2016

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: China, US


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