FIVE QUESTIONS WITH . . . Nanfu Wang
5 Questions for Nanfu Wang, director of HOOLIGAN SPARROW
by Anthony Kaufman, DOC10 Programmer
Meet “Hooligan Sparrow,” a.k.a. Ye Haiyan, a tireless Chinese women’s activist. In this tense, riveting first-hand account by first-time filmmaker Nanfu Wang (which she smuggled out of the country), viewers get a front-row seat to Sparrow’s activist efforts, from posing as a sex worker to shaming a high school principle accused of raping his students. A docu-thriller that presents a devastating critique of China’s policies regarding the rights of women and girls, the film is also a harrowing view of state surveillance and intimidation. Director Nanfu Wang discusses what brought her to the topic, her nightmares of being caught, and how difficult it is to make an independent documentary in China.
Can you talk about what brought you to this issue in the first place?
I grew up in a rural area in China where I witnessed girls who didn’t have the access to education and ended up becoming sex workers. After reading the stories about 10 Yuan Brothels where women offer sex to poor migrant workers for 10 Yuan (2 USD), and knowing that Ye Haiyan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow) volunteered to be a sex worker in those brothels to expose the living conditions of sex workers, I wanted to make a film about their lives and I hoped that Ye Haiyan could introduce me to the sex workers.
Were you ever concerned that by making this movie and showing it around the world that it might make things more difficult for the activists that appear in the movie?
Many activists in the film are currently in jail. Wang Yu, who is a human rights lawyer and one of the main subjects in the film, was arrested in July 2015 along with her husband. She was held without trial until January of this year when she finally was charged with subverting the government, a charge that could carry a life sentence. Another activist in the film named Jia Lingmin has been detained since May 2014 and is currently on hunger strike in prison. Their situations are outrageous, and I hope the film will raise awareness of these kinds of illegal detentions.
Can you talk about the decision to make yourself part of the story? Was this a difficult choice?
I didn’t have a choice. I realized that I was part of the story when my family, friends, and myself were harassed and interrogated by the police and national security agents. Part of the film is about how difficult it is to make a documentary in China; anyone who tries to participate in the conversation about human rights in China can become a target of the government. It showed the scale of the censorship and the crackdown on anyone who tries to speak out or learn about the truth and share it with other people.
There is a palpable tension and paranoia that infuses the film. Obviously, there is some very tense situations in the film, but as a filmmaker, would you say there were choices you made that helped heighten those feelings for the audience?
While I was editing, I wanted to re-create the feelings the activists and I had everyday while living in China. We had nightmares of being chased and caught almost every night. I lived in such paranoia that whenever there was a knock at the door, I thought it was the police and I’d quickly hide my equipment and footage. Since we were under constant surveillance, we changed our phone numbers every week. We stopped taking trains or flights when we travelled to avoid being tracked. I hope my film could give audiences a glimpse into what life is like for activists in China – they live under constant harassment and fear yet they continue to do what they do.
Do you have plans to show the film in China? Can you even go back to China? What kind of repercussions might you face if you returned?
I hope the film will be seen by Chinese audiences. Most Chinese people aren’t familiar with any of the events depicted in the film. Activists like Ye Haiyan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow) are portrayed as criminals by the state media, and most ordinary people believe these characterizations because their access to information is tightly controlled by the state. It's unlikely that my film will have official distribution in China. However, it may end up being shown in independent film festivals, underground cinemas and amongst small groups of people. Hopefully this will be the case, and my film and other independent films will serve as a counter to the state’s narrative. I’m not sure if I can go back to China. There is a risk that the government could retaliate in some way. The worst-case scenario would be either they wouldn’t let me go back to China or they would prevent me from leaving the country if I go back.