It is not easy being a woman, particularly if you live in China. In this new documentary, a group of human rights activists protesting the rape of six girls by a school principal soon become fugitives, as government officials attempt to muffle their protests and intimidate the women in every possible way. They are constantly threatened with violence and arrests, and they fear for their lives. Filming their endeavour is seemingly the only way of avoiding the worst possible outcome.
One of these activists is the filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who has lived abroad before, and narrates the events in clear English. The most famous activist is Ye Hayan (nicknamed “Hoooligan Sparrow”), who previously campaigned for sex workers by offering sex for free. She became a prominent activist in China and the world, as well as the subject of a BBC documentary. The Chinese establishment loathes her extremely controversial acts.
Campaigning for justice in the name of raped children may sound almost like a human duty in most countries around the world, but in China this is a very dangerous and subversive deed. Chinese officials routinely offers child sex as a means of bribing, and the practice is even “fashionable”, the movie claims. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese establishment unofficially monitors and oppresses all of these activists, and sometimes even their families. All of them – including a human rights lawyer – are eventually arrested and convicted of various made-up offences.
The verve and resilience of these women are remarkable. At one point, Hooligan Sparrow posts a picture with a sign: “you can kill me, but you cannot kill the truth”, while others say to the camera that they will not commit suicide (so that people know they have been murdered in case they show up dead). They also insist in taking the police to court for their unlawful arrest, despite knowing that they will lose the case. Their objective is instead exposing the flawed justice system in their country and the plight of women. They claim that “to remain silent is to be an accomplice”.
In Hooligan Sparrow, the camera is much more than an artistic tool, it is a lifesaver instead. It is the immutable register of the extremely dangerous and liberating battle that these women are fighting against possibly the most powerful and authoritarian government in the world. The oppression is such that at times the movie feels like a horror flick. At one point Wang talks to the camera, not knowing whether she will survive or anyone will ever see the material. This fear is akin to that experienced by the characters in The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez/ Daniel Myrick, 1999) – the difference is that here their predicament is real.
The outcome of the film is not entirely negative, as in the American horror movie. Despite the prison sentences, the footage (mainly memory cards) leaves China, and Hooligan Sparrow’s furniture left on the street when she is evicted is eventually reconstructed by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for his New York Exhibition.
This is not the first time that a film has to be made in secrecy in order to denounce human rights or a social issue in China. Earlier this year Inside the Chinese Closet (Sophia Luvarà, 2016; click here in order to read our dirty film review) revealed the uphill struggle that gays and lesbians face in a country where marriage is borderline compulsory.
Hooligan Sparrow is currently showing in film festivals around the world, including the Sheffield Doc/Fest (click here for more information about the event). You can contact the film team directly in case you want more information about distribution rights or upcoming screenings – click here in order to accede to their website.
And you can watch the film trailer below: