Nanfu Wang made her documentary feature debut at 2016’s Sundance Film Festival with Hooligan Sparrow, a profile of Ye Haiyan. Ye, whose nickname “Hooligan Sparrow” gave the film its title, is one of China’s most prominent women’s rights activists.
At great personal risk, Wang accompanied Ye and her fellow activists to China’s Hainan Province to protest the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. In the process, she became a target along with Ye but continued shooting guerilla-style, eventually smuggling her footage out of the country and editing it into a feature-length documentary while still working day jobs in the US.
Hooligan Sparrow has since screened at festivals worldwide and garnered numerous accolades, including a nomination for Sundance 2016’s Grand Jury Prize and a spot on the shortlist for the 2016 Oscar for Feature Length Documentary.
Cinema Escapist talked with Nanfu Wang about her experiences making Hooligan Sparrow and her thoughts on the broader struggle of women’s rights activists in China and beyond.
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How did you come to know Ye Haiyan, and what about her made you want to make this documentary?
Ye Haiyan is very prominent on social media, so even a few years before I contacted her I knew about her through Twitter and Weibo. She’d post nude photos on the internet and cover her private parts with messages about sex workers or women’s rights, and I always thought she was very radical — especially when she did the “free sex campaign”, where she went to brothels and offered free sex to migrant workers. It was a big sensation, and she attracted a lot of attention and criticism as well as compliments for her courage.
In 2013, when I was in New York, I thought about going back to China to make a film about sex workers. I wanted to focus on the kind that come from rural areas, ones that couldn’t otherwise find a job in the city. Typically, these sex workers would service migrant workers and charge less than $2 for each service — in China, they work in what are called “ten yuan brothels”. I knew that Sparrow had worked at those kind of brothels to expose the living conditions, taking photos and videos and writing about them — so I contacted her.
Initially, I wanted her to be the person who introduced me to the brothels and sex workers because, if I went myself, I wouldn’t be able to get access. However, when I contacted her, she noted that we hadn’t met before and said that if I came back to China, we could meet and talk.
When I did go back to China in May, I called her immediately — but it took a few days for me to get a hold of her, and even then she was very evasive and told me she wasn’t at home and didn’t know when she’d be back. She said that if I wanted to talk to sex workers, I could go to Bobai city in Guangxi and she could ask some friends to make introductions.
However, there was something about her personality, some power she held, that made me still determined to meet her: so I just asked her to tell me what city she was in, and she said Guangzhou. In that split second I said “oh, such a coincidence, I’m in Guangzhou too” — which I wasn’t, I was far away — and offered to meet the next day. She reluctantly agreed and I took an overnight bus.
We agreed to meet in the evening, but she didn’t show up… this happened a few more times, and I started getting annoyed — but I was just so curious what kind of person she was, and why she would act this way. So I decided I would meet with her no matter what.
Finally, I managed to meet her at her hotel in Guangzhou. There, everything became clear because I realized that she’d been preparing for the protest in Hainan Province. That’s why she couldn’t talk on the phone, that’s why everything was so secretive. It was really risky because all the activists were staying together at that hotel and planning.
After I learned that, I decided I’d follow them to the protest. When the protest happened, I knew that this story was no longer about sex workers. The Hainan rape case was already big national news, but I sensed it was something much bigger and more complicated than what had already been reported.
Given the sensitivity around her activities how were you eventually able to gain Sparrow’s trust?
I think she trusted me the first day we met, for multiple reasons.
One is that that, while I was born and raised in China, I had already spent 2 years in the US by that time. I introduced myself saying that I’d been studying documentary in the US and had specially come back just for this story. Therefore, as a relative outsider, I probably had less possibility of being some sort of spy.
Another reason is that I volunteered to go to the protest. The activists were very surprised at that — even some of them wouldn’t go because they were worried about being arrested; there were about 20 people in the hotel, but only 8 decided to go. Even though they explained to me all the potential dire consequences, I still insisted upon going. And I think Ye Haiyan was impressed by that because, usually, Chinese journalists wouldn’t follow them to protests given their sensitivity.
From what I’ve read, you grow up in rural China and had to leave school at a young age, but eventually managed to get three masters’ degrees. That’s a pretty inspiring story… is there anything from these life and academic experiences that might’ve uniquely influenced your filmmaking?
It’s hard to choose a single influence, but I definitely think that getting into documentaries late in life somehow affected the way I make film a lot. I never owned a camera until 2012, and never even touched a point and shoot camera until 2008, let alone make anything. Growing up in China, especially a village, I never watched a documentary — it wasn’t until university that I started watching any films to start with, and discovered the world of cinema.
In 2011 when I came to the US, I finally watched documentaries in classes and felt amazed. Before, in China, people didn’t treat documentaries as “films”. In China, there are TV documentaries that are all about food, history, culture, or animals — nothing about human beings or current affairs, and nothing in theaters either. I realized that documentaries not only could be as compelling as fictional films, but also matched every aspect of my interests: storytelling, images, and creating social change.
Because this one medium combined so many things I care about, and it was so new to me, I had a lot of passion about it. When I first owned my own camera in 2012, I’d just film nonstop whether for a project or just for daily life. As long as I was awake, I would always have a camera with me and film everything — and I think that experience helped for Hooligan Sparrow, because I filmed it nonstop too.
On the note of documentary as a medium for social change, I’m curious about what you see as the relationship between documentary filmmaking and activism.
Before, I was really sensitive about the words “artist” or “activist”. For a long time, if people asked “are you an activist or artist”, I’d always say “artist”. I didn’t make Hooligan Sparrow because I was an activist, but after experiencing what happened, I felt like it turned me into an activist, especially since the lawyer in the film (Wang Yu) — and many others — are still in prison.
When [lawyer Wang] was arrested, I was pretty devastated because I didn’t expect it, and because I also had so much admiration for her. I remember editing the film and promising myself that I’d release the film no matter what. I would finish it, release it, and do whatever I could do get her freedom.
In the process, I realized “wait a minute, this is like activist thinking, am I an activist?” I started thinking about what an “activist” was. If you say an “activist” is someone who witnessed or experienced something and then couldn’t stay passive anymore and had to take some action, then I would say yes — I am an activist.
There are activists like Ai Weiwei who attract a lot of attention the West but aren’t as well known in China due to censorship, which you could argue limits their impact. Are you afraid of Hooligan Sparrow falling into that type of situation, or is this fear exaggerated?
Even before I came back and started editing, I realized that for the film to have an impact in China, it needed to have enough exposure and impact outside of China first. Because of censorship, the only way Chinese people would learn about or become interested in the film was if there was enough exposure outside.
This was exactly what happened when the film was shortlisted for an Oscar and started getting awards as well as getting mainstream media coverage outside China. People in China started becoming curious, talking about the film, and wanting to see it — and some, as I know, have already found ways to watch it.
Besides, I think it’s always helpful to have outside attention and exposure. For example, Ai Weiwei might not be as prominent in China, but he is still one of the most well-known activists worldwide and, because of that, he’s protected to a certain extent. Whatever happens to him will become news headlines everywhere, and that deters the government from doing anything extreme to him.
I think activists like Sparrow, as well as other activists less well-known than her, need that kind of attention. Solidarity from people outside China prevents them from feeling isolated, and helps them remember they are fighting for something larger than themselves.
I heard that you recorded a Chinese voiceover to the film and were trying to get the film distributed underground. How is that going?
We have a Chinese version and we are doing some underground screenings in China, but everything has to be very careful, because the organizations or individuals who held the screenings might have trouble too. So far we have held a few screenings and we also try to distribute the film to individuals.
While Hooligan Sparrow focuses on Ye Haiyan, one of its other “stars” is her daughter Yaxin — who not only experienced her mother’s ordeal firsthand but was also blocked from educational opportunities as retaliation. How is she doing now?
Their situation is really difficult right now. Recently, they have been facing eviction from their home in Beijing. The government cut off the electricity and water in their apartment. Even though it’s Chinese New Year, they’ve already spent almost 10 days in the dark as the government pressures the landlord to evict them.
I’ve been trying to help them get out of the country and find a school for Yaxin here [in the US] because she was suspended from school in China many times. Even when Sparrow tries to enroll Yaxin in a new school, the head of school would look up her name and say “we can’t accept you, and you know the reason better than we do.” I really hope she can get an education here, and in the past week I’ve been trying to contact schools here to get financial aid and hopefully accept her.
Sparrow is more difficult because her passport has been confiscated by the government since November 2014, and thus it’s really difficult to leave the country. If there are organizations or individuals that have pro bono legal or immigrant services to help Sparrow, that would be great.
Mao Zedong was famously quoted as saying “women hold up half the sky” and, more recently, Xi Jinping has made a big deal about the “rule of law”. Despite this, Hooligan Sparrow reveals that there are still many extrajudicial efforts to suppress women’s’ rights in China. Why do you there’s this disconnect between the official ideology and reality on the ground?
I wish I knew! Only the leaders, policymakers, and perhaps Xi Jinping himself, know the answer. The rest of us can only assume.
Although a law might be made and technically exists, how [officials] implement the law is very arbitrary. For example, I filmed in public. That’s protected by law, but they could say you’re disturbing public order and arrest you on that charge.
I don’t know why the government feels threatened by people like Sparrow and me who are trying to tell these stories. This is a question that leads to everything the government does — why there’s censorship, why they can’t have more open information. I think they want to strengthen their control, but, still, why do they feel a threat?
On the other side of the Pacific, with Donald Trump now the President of the United States, many women’s rights activists in the US are gearing up for a fight. What do you think they could learn from Ye Haiyan’s example?
Here [in the US], you have a much larger space to fight: you can go onto the street and protest. In China, even a small protest would receive government retaliation. However, Sparrow, lawyer Wang Yu, and many other activists still protest.
The fact that they live their lives under constant fear, harassment, intimidation, and interrogation but none of them give up — that should be inspiring to everyone here [in the US]. Even if the situation is difficult and might get much worse, as long as people are fighting and continue resisting, there is hope that things will change.
What kind of impact do you think the Trump presidency might have on naming and shaming China on human rights?
Nowadays, naming and shaming hasn’t been as effective as people hoped. For example with the recent crackdown on human rights lawyers, even though there was a lot of coverage, the Chinese government still didn’t respond much or release the lawyers.
Still, I think the international community and governments should continue [naming and shaming] because that’s the only monitoring system that can put pressure on the Chinese government — there’s no such equivalent in China to hold the government accountable. However, I am afraid that with the Trump presidency things are going to get worse here [in the US] and that next time when you name and shame the Chinese government, they could point their fingers at America and say “look at your human rights, how are you much better than us?” And that’s sad to see.
On the point of the detained human rights lawyers as well as given events like a recently announced crackdown on VPNs: do you think the situation for activists in China has gotten worse and is continuing to deteriorate?
Looking at the evidence of how many people have been arrested over the past few years: yes, it is getting worse. Much of the crackdowns have been unprecedented if you look at the past 10 years or so.
However, while the government is cracking down and censorship is getting tighter and tighter, activists are always finding a way to bypass that because technology is so available to people. If the government cracks down on one VPN, the activists will find another. As long as they have access to technology, they can find ways to communicate and organize. It’s much more difficult for the government to censor the internet than other traditional media.
Hooligan Sparrow has a Chinese setting, story, and subject, but much of its audience is American. Given this, do you think you’re a Chinese filmmaker, an American filmmaker, or some blend of both?
Well I am Chinese, and that’s a part of me that would never change. I’ve lived over 20 years of my life in China and I was raised in that culture, so there’s a part of me that will always be always be Chinese, and the influence will never go away. Now, I do live in America — but when I make films, I think the storytelling should not have nationality.
Good stories don’t just belong to one nation. People from any country should be able to get the story and find it effective. As a filmmaker, it’s my goal to tell these stories that can be universal, that can be timeless.
Therefore, I wouldn’t say I’m a completely Chinese or completely American filmmaker. I live in America, but I can leave here and go somewhere else in the world to live, work, and tell stories. That’s something I like about documentaries because, whenever you make a film, you go into somebody’s life and tell a story, whether they’re from your culture or a completely different culture.
Do you have any plans for future projects?
Yeah — my next film is going to premiere in March. The title is I Am Another You. It’s a feature documentary about an American story, so it has nothing to do with China.
Do you think that you might want to make more films in China in the future?
Yes, of course. I feel China has many stories. I almost feel like whichever direction you point the camera in, there’s a story. And like I said, I am Chinese, and I have strong feelings about the country whether it’s love, or hate, or something else complicated. Although it might be difficult at this point, in the future I hope I will be able to go back and make more films.
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Watch the trailer for Hooligan Sparrow
Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and length.