Speaking truth to power is dangerous in some places, including modern-day China, where corrupt government officials deal very harshly with critics.
Chinese officials prove especially displeased when their critics include an activist lawyer, outraged parents, a fearless filmmaker and a sex workers' rights activist with a wicked sense of humor. Hooligan Sparrow, Nanfu Wang's feature debut, centers on a horrible crime that took place in 2013: A school principal and a member of the education bureaucracy abducted six female students 11 to 14 years of age, took them to a hotel and sexually assaulted them over a 24-hour period. When parents and their supporters demanded justice, the perpetrators insisted the girls were prostitutes. Then the powers-that-be and their hired thugs really started playing hardball.
The film starts with Wang introducing herself with the help of footage that escaped government confiscation. "That's me with the camera," she begins. "Those guys are watching me because of the camera," she says of a group of men who are keeping her under surveillance. "This is the story I captured before they took the camera from me."
Authorities also tried to silence Ye Haiyan (a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow), who gained notoriety in 2010 for offering sex--for free--to expose the horrors in some of the nation's brothels. Her video went viral, as did a nude photo of her and other Chinese dissidents, including artist Ai Weiwei. Fast forward to 2013, when Sparrow, as she is known, was joined in her support for the abused schoolgirls by Wang Yu, one of the very few female lawyers who specialize in human rights in China. Both would suffer greatly for their activism.
Their initial protest will seem, to Western viewers, very low-key. Sparrow, lawyer Wang and a handful of activists positioned themselves near the victims' school in the Hainan Province in southern China, where they carried signs and handed out literature. The crime they protested was not unusual. "In China," government officials get away with rape by charging that their victims were prostitutes." A rapist will receive a life sentence or the death penalty, whereas the sentence for engaging with a child prostitute is five to 15 years. The perpetrators were obviously willing to roll the dice.
The real crime, at least in official eyes, is calling out the abusers. The penalty for protest, Wang says, is sometimes devastating. "You can be sent to a mental hospital or detention center."
Despite these dangers, Sparrow made sure the small protest would get maximum attention. She carried a sign taunting the prime suspect that read, "Hey principal, get a room with me. Leave the kids alone!" A video of Sparrow and her message went viral. She definitely got the authorities' attention.
They soon unleashed a campaign of intimidation, including secret police surveillance, threats and government-organized mob violence and break-ins, much of which was captured on film, including the May 2013 arrest of Sparrow on trumped-up assault charges. While the intention was to intimidate, it had the opposite effect. "You can kill me," she warned officials, "but you can't kill the truth."
Sparrow, a single mother who comes from a humble rural background, is a riveting figure. Her wit is all the more remarkable for its fearlessness. During her 2010 protest against brothel conditions, which also illuminated the harsh living situation of migrant workers, she gave away condoms--and sex--with the assurance that she was acting at the behest of the government. "We need some humor in our life," she explains.
But there was little mirth awaiting her. While the publicity for the 2013 school rapes might have had some effect--the principal received a sentence of 13 years, six months (his accomplice got 11 years, six months)--Sparrow and lawyer Wang were shown little mercy, despite being right.
Secret police kidnapped Sparrow and her 13-year-old daughter, Yaxin, threw their belongings into a van, drove them to a remote area and abandoned them and their worldly goods on the roadside. "I don't care what happens to me, but I can't forgive myself for the harm I've inflicted on my family," says Sparrow. But her bravery has rubbed off on her remarkably mature daughter, who remains calm and even upbeat throughout the film.
The state media conducted a smear campaign against lawyer Wang, accusing her of faking her educational and professional credentials, and later arrested her and her husband, Bao Longjun, also a human rights lawyer. Both are still being held without trial. Her son was placed under house arrest, which has not been lifted.
Filmmaker Wang was not spared official harassment either. Her life was threatened and some of her footage confiscated, though she was still able to piece together her documentary by fleeing on trains and buses in the dead of night and smuggling the remaining footage out of the country in August 2013.
"The chain of events I witnessed in the months that followed the protest shocked me," the filmmaker says. "I've never had illusions about fairness in China's justice system or the accountability of its government. But I never expected to see ordinary people turn on their neighbors who were fighting for their rights. I never expected to be attacked by screaming mobs just for filming on the street. I never expected to be interrogated by national security agents, and that my family and friends would be harassed and threatened by secret police."
"But this is the China I saw." And the China she now presents to the world.
The film concludes with Wang visiting a 2014 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum mounted by Ai Weiwei. Sparrow and her daughter's belongings, abandoned by the police in China, had made their way to New York, where the scene along the highway was painstakingly reconstructed in the museum.
And Sparrow remains defiant. "If I believe something is right and I'm obliged to do it, they can't stop me by arresting me or even killing me."