Film Review: Hooligan Sparrow

Reports of radical activism in China are still rare enough that Chinese-American Nanfu Wang’s documentary about women’s-rights activist “Hooligan Sparrow” is significant, but it is marred by the filmmaker’s storytelling style.
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Hooligan Sparrow is as much about the eponymous activist Ye Haiyan as it is about the Chinese-American filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who documents her subject’s advocacy for the rights of China’s women and girls. The film’s first image is of Wang, who became a target of authorities after she began covering Haiyan’s protests in 2013, not an uncommon occurrence for human-rights filmmakers. Hooligan Sparrow, the winner of this year’s Nestor Almendros Award at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, illustrates the sort of harassment one would expect radical thinkers like Haiyan to suffer in an authoritarian country; what this debut documentary does not provide is a comprehensive picture of her or her associates, or the background necessary for viewers to understand the significance of their actions.

Haiyan apparently exposed the lives of sex workers by briefly becoming one herself. Wang never explores this protest adequately so that the audience understands the implications of Haiyan’s actions on Chinese society. Near the end of the documentary, and in an ineffective voiceover, Haiyan says that the sex workers represent all Chinese women who do whatever they can to care for their families, alluding to China’s refusal to see women as deserving of protection under the law. While Wang professes to feel a kinship with Haiyan because she and the activist were both born in small villages in China, there is no evidence of it.

In the end, we know nothing about Haiyan’s early life, her education or her marriage, or what she lives on since she does not appear to have a job. Haiyan is a single mother, living with her adolescent daughter, Yaxin, in a cramped apartment that also serves as the headquarters for her women’s group. Wang’s only emotional attachment, and one audiences will likely feel as well, is to Yaxin, an insightful girl who has perhaps grown up too quickly, although the filmmaker never explains her life in any detail. That leaves Wang’s footage of Yu Wang, an international figure, and one of the few female human-rights attorneys in China.

Much has been published in the English-language press about Yu Wang, so those who follow the human-rights situation in China will appreciate the significance of her presence in the documentary. She has been jailed for over a year now for subversion of the state’s power. Yu Wang is Haiyan’s attorney and accompanies her on protests, as she does at the start of the documentary. She and Haiyan and her small, dedicated group of female activists travel to the city where six girls between the ages of 11 and 14 were abducted by their school administrators and handed over to government officials as a bribe. All of the girls were raped, yet neither the administrators nor the officials had been charged at the time of the demonstration.

During that protest alongside a busy street, Yu Wang hands out copies of the law that protects women and girls from rape, but that is apparently not enforced. In an unnecessarily self-referential manner, the director later uses this scene to prove the connection between that important act of civil disobedience and the final fallout from the crimes. Then she adds archival clips from Chinese television news that better illustrate Haiyan’s influence on public opinion and her ability to articulate what is felt by others who are less willing to speak out. As in this instance, filmmaker Wang’s habit of blending her narrative with that of her subjects calls attention to her footage, rather than to the courage of her subjects.

By far the most dramatic moment in the documentary is Wang’s skillfully conducted interview with the father of the one of the schoolgirls who was raped. She never pushes the father beyond the point he is willing to go, or what may be culturally acceptable, yet she gets the full story. Other effective scenes in Hooligan Sparrow are those in which members of Haiyan’s women’s group testify directly to the camera before a protest. As one of them explains, it is important to say that you would never commit suicide. It takes a moment to realize the implication of that statement—if a protester is arrested and dies while in police custody, the state would be unable to claim it was a suicide. Wang fails to expand on this testimony, so it is difficult to know whether it is common practice, a distinction that would allow the audience to learn something about civil disobedience in general in China.

Wang is the narrative voice of the documentary, and she is continually in front of the camera, one time to introduce audio of her meeting with police officials, and another time to discuss how she edited her footage as she went along, always working in fear of it being confiscated. Some of her footage was seized and destroyed, but again this is no surprise, as it is one of the risks of human-rights filmmaking. Rather than allowing Hooligan Sparrow to represent her achievement, Wang continually highlights her own plight, upstaging subjects who, unlike her, did not have an airline ticket to freedom waiting for them in Shanghai.

Click here for cast and crew information.