No Oscar buzz but China tries to clip Hooligan Sparrow’s wings
Documentary about activist Ye Haiyan misses out on Academy Award nomination but intimidation continues
Ye Haiyan, one of China’s most prominent women’s rights activists, huddled in her unheated flat on the outskirts of Beijing, waiting to learn if the documentary that propelled her to international fame would receive an Oscar nod.
Last month, Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary following her activism on behalf of sexually abused children, made a short list for the Academy Awards. Last week, local authorities killed her gas, water, electricity and internet.
When she learned the film was not included among the final five nominees announced on Tuesday, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“If many people started paying attention to me because of the film, I suspect I wouldn’t be able to stay in China much longer,” she said.
“I don’t want to stand up and become an even more prominent dissident here.”
Since 2012, Ye has gained a huge online following for shock-tactic human rights activism: working for free in a brothel to advocate for sex worker rights and making a tongue-in-cheek offer to sleep with a school principal who raped and pimped out his students in the southern island province of Hainan.
Her work drew the attention of internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who posed nude with her in a controversial photograph.
But the spotlight also attracted the attention of the country’s police, who ruthlessly persecuted the single mother for her role in organising protests over the school rape case.
The director of Hooligan Sparrow, New York-based Nanfu Wang, captured the drama of intimidation, detention and evictions Ye suffered in the summer of 2013, weaving the tense footage into a thriller-esque narrative.
The first-time director’s documentary would have become one of only a handful of movies by a mainland Chinese filmmaker to ever be nominated for an Oscar.
Wang was disappointed the film was not included among the final five nominees.
“A nomination would have been big news in China – the kind of news that state censorship would struggle to manage,” Wang said.
Greater exposure might mean greater protection for Ye from authorities bent on muzzling civil society, but it could also end in increased harassment, she said.
Wang has not returned to China since the film debuted, unsure of the consequences that might await her.
Watch: Oscar buzz dead, China clips wings of ‘Hooligan Sparrow’
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping took power in late 2012, authorities have carried out a brutal crackdown on civil society, which has seen hundreds of lawyers, activists and academics detained and dozens jailed.
“It’s difficult to know for sure how the government will behave,” she said.
Since the film’s release, Ye has been forced to re-evaluate her often sensationalistic tactics.
Things were “quite dangerous” for a while, she said, as the government upped its surveillance.
“After Hainan and Nanfu’s film, I thought: ‘My God, our country is so rotten. The authorities are capable of anything,’” she said.
“Before, I’d been so naive. I thought as long as I made noise, the government would hear me and change.”
Living under constant scrutiny, she said, has forced her to find a balance between speaking out for her beliefs and keeping a low-enough profile to avoid becoming further entangled.
Her previous tactics, inspired by Western-style activism, fell on deaf ears in China, she said.
“People wouldn’t listen to anything you said, thinking you’d been brainwashed by Western universal values,” she said.
To change Chinese hearts and minds, she is going to “try to better understand people and find language that they can accept”.
“I’m even willing to work with the Communist Party,” she added.
The government, however, does not seem interested in the offer: local officials have shut off her utilities in an attempt to drive her from her home, this time for posting an article about the party’s founding father Mao Zedong.
After she criticised a small but vocal resurgence of praise for the leader whose failed policies killed tens of millions, government censors closed her social media accounts and local police threatened to lock her in her home if she did not leave.
“We might have to jump out the second-storey window,” she said.
But while Ye may bend to the party’s will, she refuses to break. She has turned her predicament into performance art, hanging a red lantern on her staircase for every day she goes without power.
“As long as they allow me a small space in this country to survive and speak, I won’t leave or give up being a critic.”