Film on China sex workers shines at Sundance festival

Hooligan Sparrow director lands US screenings, hopes documentary is seen locally and in China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2016, 1:10am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2016, 1:10am

A documentary that followed Ye Haiyan, an outspoken advocate for sex workers’ rights in the mainland, and other activists, including human rights lawyer Wang Yu – arrested in January for subversion – had its world premiere at the renowned Sundance Film Festival in the US.

Having conquered the major event for independent cinema as China cracks down on human rights, director Nanfu Wang is aiming to show Hooligan Sparrow soon in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

Wang, who went to the US in 2011 to study documentary filmmaking, told the Sunday Morning Post this was not the film she had imagined when she started the project. “I was interested in Chinese sex workers’ story, their life and rights,” she recalled. “So I contacted Ye Haiyan”, also known as Hooligan Sparrow.

But when Wang, originally from a small village in Jiangxi province, returned to China in 2013, she found the urge to tell a different story. “I realised that she was not working with any sex workers at the moment,” she said of Ye. “But I didn’t stop and say, ‘This is not the film I wanted to make,’”.

Wang decided to follow Ye and her fellow activists to a protest in Hainan province, where a school principal and a government official allegedly raped six elementary school girls aged between 11 and 14 in 2013.

She sensed the story was “much bigger” and more complex than she had thought since it involved state surveillance, censorship, corruption, and sex violence. “I kept filming because I believed that someone needed to record what was happening and share it with the world,” she said.

Wang shot the film with a small DSLR camera and a hidden camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses. Soon she became a target of intimidation and violence along with Sparrow and other activities.

“I was surrounded and threatened by screaming mobs,” Wang said. A friend was interrogated by police. National security agents hounded her family and questioned her for hours.

“They demanded that I give them my footage,” she said. “I was never arrested, but seeing the activists being detained and knowing that I could be next made me live in a constant state of fear as I was working on this project.”

Despite the recent crackdown on human rights activists, namely lawyers, in the mainland, and the plight of the five missing Hong Kong booksellers – including one who disappeared while in Thailand – Wang said she felt safe in New York. She said she had no plans to return to China in the next few years.

But Wang, who was not involved in politics prior to the film project, said she was worried about those who took part in her documentary. “Right now, I’m very concerned about people in my film,” she said, singling out as an example human rights lawyer Wang Yu.

Yu has been detained since July last year and was formally arrested on subversion charges last month. “I hope the film will raise awareness of her situation and allow people to see who she really is and what she does,” Wang said.

The filmmakers said the main character Ye at present lived in Wuhan but that her passport was confiscated in November 2014, effectively preventing her from travelling. Nevertheless, Wang said, Ye was “still speaking out actively online”.

The documentary was shot between May and August 2013, but editing was only completed in November last year.

Hooligan Sparrow, Wang’s feature debut, was shown in six venues in the US at the end of January.

Her courage as a director was applauded by critics. A review from Hollywood Reporter reads: “Wang makes a virtue out of necessity: Her on-the-run scoping and jarring cuts infuse the film with a sense of desperate danger befitting its subject matter.”