Hooligan Sparrow

PBS Premiere: Oct. 17, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

Go behind the lens of POV documentary Hooligan Sparrow.

POV: Describe Hooligan Sparrow for someone who hasn't seen it.

Nanfu Wang: Hooligan Sparrow is a film about a group of the most courageous women's rights activists in China, who are led by a woman called Ye Haiyan, whose nickname is Hooligan Sparrow. And she took this group of activists to stage a protest when a principal and a government official raped six young girls, and the government at the time wasn't doing anything. And because of the protests she did and the consequences of the protest in China, she was arrested, evicted, harassed and things that even shocked the most seasoned activists in China and myself as well. And I was with her the whole time. What happened is the government discovered that I was filming, so they came after me, my friends and my family as well. It's really a film about how far the government would go to silence anybody who wanted to tell the story even slightly connected to human rights.

POV: The case of those young students, how prevalent is that sort of thing in China?

Wang: I was shocked when I started researching how many sexual abuse cases were happening in China during that time because all the lawyers were telling me that this wasn't an isolated case. It actually happened across China in many different provinces, different schools, that young girls were raped or abused somehow by government officials and school officials. And then I started researching and realized that there were probably like 15 cases over a month. I was shocked, so I asked the lawyers why this is. And it was because at the time, China has a specific law that allows people to prove that as long as the girls received money or a gift, then it's not a rape case, it's child prostitution, because there is some kind of money or benefit exchange. So that's why a lot of government officials had sexually abused girls, but could get away with child prostitution. And the girls actually had to pay a fine as well.

POV: Do you think there's hope for that law to be changed?

Wang: It was changed. The activists had been working on that for almost two decades, and it was changed while I was editing the film in 2014.

POV: Hooligan Sparrow is such an inspiring character, and so memorable. When you were working with her, did you feel that way? What was it like to work with her?

Wang: She is a very charismatic person. She could say things and it's always mesmerizing. And she has a great sense of humor. When we were discussing slogans all those activists would use at the protest and most of them would say, oh, "punish the principal", or, "we need justice" - things like that. And she would say, "hey principal, get a room with me and leave the kids alone." And we were all laughing, like "wow, that's what you are going to say?" And she said, "yeah, I'm going to say that." So I think that's very special about her because there were so many activists in China, but not all of them had essence of. Sometimes I feel like she has some quality of almost like a performance artist. And no matter what she does, she always draws a lot of attention and maximizes the impact.

POV: You had an amazing journey yourself to become a filmmaker. Could you talk about your background and journey to becoming a documentary filmmaker?

Wang: I was born in a small village in China. And my parents did not have money. So when my father passed away when I was 12, I was forced to leave school and start working. When I was 16 I became an elementary school teacher. And I worked for three years, every day. I was just telling myself I really wanted to go back to college. So eventually three years later I went back to college to study English literature because I wanted to be a writer at the time. When I graduated from the graduate school in China, I was thinking, what can I do, still telling stories, but it's some kind of a work that has very immediate significance? And then I applied to journalism school in the U.S. And after learning journalism for a year, I was thinking, in order for me to tell the stories I wanted to tell in China, I have to be independent. That's the real stories I wanted to tell. So I thought, filmmaking, especially like independent documentary was the perfect medium.

POV: Were films a big part of your life growing up?

Wang: As I mentioned, I grew up in a small village, and my family didn't even have TV until I was a teenager. It was only when I got to graduate school in 2007 that I got my first computer. And that's when I started watching films. So for me it was really in the graduate school in the U.S. I started watching some of the first documentaries in my life and was amazed that they could be very compelling, they could be very character driven, they could be about current affairs. They could be just as interesting and compelling as fiction films. And then I told myself, I want to do this.

POV: It's hard to be in your film and then also direct, shoot and edit. Could you talk about that, how you managed balancing all of those roles?

Wang: At the time I just did not have a choice. It wasn't because that I wanted to do it! Well, maybe I wanted to do it. But it was more like I couldn't afford to hire anybody. I couldn't afford to hire a crew to go to China, which turned out to be great because if I had hired a crew, if I had a sound person, a cinematographer and an assistant, I guess there would never been the film because the situation was so dangerous. And even me with a small camera could draw so much attention and danger to the subjects. And the editing process, I really enjoyed it because for me it almost felt like it was my life. That three months that I was filming was part of my life that was so memorable that I would never forget. So probably unlike other editors who are editing other peoples' films, I did not need to watch the whole footage for three months to be able to get to the story. Everything was so memorable in my mind, everything, even like some lines, people's expressions, they were just in my mind. They were part of my life. So that really brought me very close to the film.

It's interesting, a lot of people have asked me, are you a filmmaker or an activist? And I'm always like, "I'm not an activist, I'm a filmmaker." And the reason I said that was because I cannot even picture myself going onto the streets and shouting out slogans or participating in protests. I had never done it before and I cannot picture myself doing it. But what changed that thought was - I remember vividly - I was editing the film and the news came in that lawyer Wang Yu was arrested on July 16th, 2015. I was shocked that she was arrested. The government posted a video of her confessing that what she did was a crime, confessing that she took money from foreign countries to subvert the government. And I knew that confession must have been forced and she must have suffered torture. At the time I was so devastated, I said to myself, "I'm going to finish the film, I want the film to be out. I don't care which festival, I don't care which channel, I just want it to be out. And I want to do anything I can to help to get her out." And then I was thinking, like wait a minute, I would do anything. At that moment I was like, I would go onto the streets, I would do this, I would do that. I was like, I'm an activist. I am an activist. Probably all the filmmakers, all the storytellers, they are activists in a certain way because once you witness something, once you want to tell a story, you don't want to stay passive. Then you are active, then you are an activist.

POV: Talk about the experience of worrying about your subjects' safety, your own safety and then thinking about the arc of the film.

Wang: Yeah, safety was one of the major concerns because none of us knew what would happen the next day. None of us knew who would be arrested next. And that was scary. I remember when Sparrow was arrested we tried to visit her at the detention center, and there would be activists coming from all over the country who tried to visit her. And every day when we went to the detention center, we almost had to prepare ourselves that that would be the day we got arrested. So that's the thing. And I remember sometimes that kind of fear was also funny as well, to a certain extent. For example, when I was at Sparrow's house, I did not know when the police would break in - they could break in any time. So what I had to do, even in the houses, was hide my equipment. I had to hide all the memory cards - break them down and hide a little piece here, a little piece there. I would find the most unthinkable corner, put it in the bottle or put it in the closet or something. But in the end, when we had to leave, I would have trouble finding those things myself. I would be missing pieces of equipment or memory cards, but those are some funny moments. We were so paranoid.

POV: Did you ever think about stopping or backing out of the film?

Wang: No, I never thought, "I'm going to quit or go back home." I think part of the reason was, in situations like that, I had very complex emotions and fears. And with all these emotions together, sometimes I feel like fear is really low on the list, it wasn't the dominant emotion. I remember all I was thinking was that I had to film it. I was so angry that they wouldn't let me film, they wouldn't let me even take out my camera. So that's the thing that I always constantly struggled at. I wanted to film, I wanted to show people, I wanted to show that most people who didn't know this, they had to see.