“Hey Principal: get a room with me and leave the kids alone!”
First-time director Nanfu Wang‘s documentary Hooligan Sparrow proves how a single piece of paper explaining a child’s rights can cause a ripple within a sea of oppression and catalyze justice. That document came from the hand of Wang Yu, a lawyer who followed and supported the titular “Sparrow” (Ye Haiyan) on a journey to expose the heinous acts of the Chinese government. Yu is now in prison and has been for two years without trial. Haiyan and her young daughter were evicted, harassed, and forced to move onto her parents’ farm. This film was supposed to document a protest and its result with Wang’s access kept secretive in hopes customs wouldn’t confiscate her footage. It ultimately expands wider to show how far China will go to bully objectors.
Wang composes the events in a way that allows us to go back and rewind, discovering how players arriving later in larger roles are also present in the background at the beginning. The cause that Haiyan fought for alongside others wasn’t therefore a stunt. People came and watched. People came and learned. And others came to document it all as plain-clothed members of the government. Suddenly Wang herself becomes a target, her involvement with “Sparrow” a key component to threats of death. After two years in America with camera in-hand, her return to China to film Haiyan put her right in the middle of the chaos because of that device. But no matter what the Chinese government did to dissuade them from continuing, they refused to back down.
Hooligan Sparrow is less about the activists—Wang included—and more about the uphill battle faced. We learn about Haiyan’s past offering free sex to expose the conditions sex workers endure, but not solely to understand her. She became a sex worker to experience that life and document the horrors to push for the occupation to be legalized so they can be protected. Learning this exposes her tenacity, but also the government’s reach once the brothel owners she worked alongside suddenly turn against her. It all stems from her speaking out about the arrest of a school principal and government official after they kidnapped and raped six young girls. Now we know: with a little money, even friends will turn against you. There’s literally nowhere you can hide.
But Haiyan kept going. Wang kept filming. This is why the Chinese government wants to shut the film down. Wang used special glasses with a hidden camera, filmed people who didn’t want to be filmed, and recorded some too. When some footage was destroyed by an assumedly paid-off mob of locals, someone brave enough to pretend he wasn’t also filming allowed her to have his. We watch as she inspires an activist named Huang to purchase his own camcorder and see a father defeated in the belief justice wouldn’t be served for his daughter rise up to still try. It’s often heard during the film that laws in China do protect the citizens; they just aren’t being enforced. Evidence like that accumulated here cannot be refuted or ignored.
The circumstances allowing Wang to become her own film’s star augment its success. She often attempts to move things back towards Haiyan, but it’s tough not to see everything as Wang’s story from the moment the first threat comes in. She puts herself in the thick of things despite being the novice in the group. At one point she retreats back to the van during a protest, afraid of arrest. That specific ordeal could have been over for her, but she saw Haiyan and the other activists standing tall. She learned that they knew they couldn’t be arrested because doing so would propel them onto national news. So Wang went back out—steeled to the danger—and became as crucial a voice through her camera as the rest.
It’s amazing that this footage survived the tumult because we experience multiple sequences where all hope could have been lost. Somehow Wang retained her hard-drives and the truth was allowed to live on and become an Oscar-shortlisted documentary the world would become compelled to see. The film becomes one more piece to the puzzle as 21st century technology and internet access changes the game surrounding totalitarianism’s reach. State-run media is no longer the only source for news. Anyone with a camera can capture the truth and set it free. The idea is to educate and expose because believers will be made of those caught too long inside a haze of subterfuge and propaganda. You can incarcerate and evict members, but you can never completely silence their movement.