Monday night, Americans can watch a documentary about China that’s not yet been officially shown in mainland China because of its subject matter. Hooligan Sparrow is about six schoolgirls, ages 11 to 14, who in 2013 were allegedly taken by their principal to a hotel in another town, where he and another man sexually assaulted them. The film airs on the POV series on PBS.
“Hooligan Sparrow” is activist Ye Haiyan’s nickname. She’s previously campaigned for the rights of sex workers. The film is about her efforts to get justice for the girls.
The men claimed they’d given the youngsters $2,000. According to a Chinese law at the time, such a gift would mean that the girls could be considered prostitutes — and that the government could let the men go unpunished or hand down a light sentence.
As the documentary shows, Ye Haiyan’s activism made her a target. She’s harassed by the authorities and by thugs, and she’s evicted from her home along with her teenage daughter. (That act inspired art: Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s project called “Ye Haiyan’s Belongings.”)
Nanfu Wang, who filmed Hooligan Sparrow, has much in common with Ye Haiyan. Both women grew up in poor farming villages in China. Wang dropped out of school at age 12 when her father died so she could work to support the family. She taught herself English, earned a fellowship to study English language and literature at Shanghai University and went on to pursue journalism and film in the U.S., where she now lives.
She originally got in touch with Ye Haiyan in the hope of making a documentary about sex workers. When she learned of the six schoolgirls, Wang changed her focus.
Wang spoke with Goats and Soda about Hooligan Sparrow, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. She will receive the Emerging Documentary Filmmaker award from the International Documentary Association on Dec. 9.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the film you’re part of the action – being chased, threatened, figuring out what’s happening minute-by-minute.
It is really happening in real time. When we were there, what was going to happen the next day, nobody knew.
Were you frightened?
I was pretty scared. At the moment, though, I was more angry than scared. How could things like this happen in my country? Even though I told some people they are still in denial. At the time, I thought if I don’t record this, nobody would know, and that scared me even more.
In the documentary, the Chinese authorities clamp down on activists. How can people speak out in that environment?
That is a question I was thinking a lot about when I was filming. There are times when I did feel hopeless, especially when we were on the street and we were confronted with the secret police, and they would threaten us and bystanders would just watch.
Do you have hope for the future?
I think I’m hopeful, especially with social media. When I witnessed how a picture of Ye Haiyan’s protest could generate so much attention and eventually went viral, it gave me hope, because it shows no matter how extensive surveillance and censorship is, there is still a chance with social media for people to get closer to the truth.
Are people in mainland China aware of the film?
It has been shown in Taiwan and Hong Kong multiple times. In both places, people responded very strongly. I sensed that in Hong Kong and Taiwan, there was a fear that they don’t want their place to become like what was depicted in the film. It was never shown publicly in mainland China, but there are people who watched it.
Will it be shown in mainland China?
We are working on that but it has to planned strategically so that the people who are planning to show it do not get into trouble.
Multiple people were arrested and detained in the course of the documentary, including Ye Haiyan and other activists. Do you feel responsible for bringing attention to them?
I have had that conversation with the activists from the day I started filming. They all agreed more exposure could potentially protect them more. That’s how I felt too. Every move the government does is watched by the entire world.
Then there’s Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer who got involved in the case. In 2015, she was arrested along with other human rights lawyers. Do you know where she is now?
I have not been able to talk to her. Nobody can locate where she is. She was released on bail. Still, no one could contact her. So I’m really worried where she is and what her situation is.
Do you know what happened to the six girls?
The girls had several suicide attempts and didn’t want to talk to anyone. They wouldn’t even talk to their parents. They would lock themselves in their rooms. Wang Yu and a few women rights activists had a few sessions of the girls meeting with psychologists.
What happened to the principal and the other man who was convicted?
They should be still in prison.
Tell me about the activists you met.
What struck me was that they are all women, and they are ordinary. They have families. They are mothers. They are wives. They are just like the women in China who would be expected to stay at home and be a housewife, but they fought against their social expectations. That inspired me and impressed me.
What has happened to Ye Haiyan since 2013?
Her passport was confiscated November 2014 so she has been prohibited from traveling. Even traveling within China she is closely monitored. She couldn’t do much activism. But she is writing about social issues and social justice. She often publishes three articles per week on her blog through her WeChat.
She feels disabled in a way, that her life is meaningless. And that’s when a lot of people ask me if [she wants] to apply for political asylum. She says she doesn’t want to leave China. Leaving China and coming to another country to just to survive is not a life she wants to live.
What is your next project?
Currently, I am finishing a film in the U.S. about a guy who was born and raised in a Mormon family and whose family [defected from Mormonism]. But the son became rebellious and went into drug dealing. He eventually fled Utah and decided to live in the streets. So I followed him and lived on the streets with him. Basically, it’s the story about the freedom of choice and the conflict between personal freedom and social expectation.
Do you have plans to return to China?
I do want to, but I don’t know. Everything about China shaped who I am. It is part of my identity. But I hate that it is part of who I am. It is love and hate. My feelings about China are very complicated.