Early in Hooligan Sparrow, her tremendous documentary about Chinese activist Ye Haiyan (whose alias is the film’s title), director Nanfu Wang turns the camera on herself. “Please,” she beseeches the viewer. “Seek justice for me.”
The plea is preemptive; Wang joins Ye and a group of her activist friends to protest the lack of government intervention after the rape of six young girls by a school principal and a government official in Hainan province. Each of the activists makes entreaties like Wang’s. At the protest, they are intimidated and surveilled by men — likely undercover cops or secret police — snapping photos, asking questions, invading their space, and trying to take their cameras, sometimes sending them to prison without trial.
This is risky work, and Ye is practiced in it, having spent two years performing sex work for free in order to advocate for sex workers’ rights. She knows that entertainment value translates to attention, that a camera is a powerful weapon, and she is almost relentlessly willing to laugh, even when situations seem hopeless. How else will she survive?
Wang’s film allows the public activist to be privately human, showing Ye at home with her lively daughter, sharing moments of friendship with other women activists or clearing brush and describing the hard rural lives of her family.
By the final moments, Wang is alone, surrounded by men threatening to smash her handheld camera. Wang shot this film largely solo. If they smash her lens, there’s nothing for us to see. Silence is death, and she insists on living.
Directed by Nanfu Wang
The Film Collaborative
Opens July 22, Cinema Village