An alternative title for Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow could be A Women’s Rights Activist’s Travelogue of 21st Century Communist China, or: How to Flee. Activism is front and center in this audio-visual, boundary-bending collage, but this is ultimately a tale of exile. Nanfu Wang, who serves as producer, writer, editor, and director of the film, set out to document the work of the activist Sparrow but instead found herself, along with other Chinese activists, an enemy of the state. The film – as shot and shaped by Wang – is an Orwellian document of escalation and fear.
Sparrow is infamous in China. Her protests and rights campaigns have gone viral across the globe. She’s a passionate advocate for the protection of migrant sex workers. She even occupied a room in a brothel offering free sex to prevent disease and raise awareness. Her performance art is a mixture of shock tactic and body politics meant to shed light on the abuse of women under communism’s rule. Her work is incendiary. It is brutal. It has invoked the government to stalk and attack her.
Wang follows Sparrow and a group of rights activists as they travel down to Hainan – China’s smallest, southernmost province. Their protest is against a local principal and a government official caught soliciting and sexually abusing six elementary school girls. At the time of investigation, police said there wasn’t enough evidence to convict the two men; though there’s enough damning camera footage to bring them to trial. Wang and Sparrow speak often about how government officials are protected in China. Laws bolster criminal behavior. They are written to blame the victim and create a legal sanctuary for predators. China’s child prostitution laws are most egregious: even if a child was sexually abused, if she received money, she is also prosecuted.
The protest leads to a systemic outrage that puts Sparrow and her 13-year-old daughter’s life in jeopardy. Wang’s portrait of Sparrow turns into a document of the fallout. She stays close to Sparrow and eventually becomes a target too. Natural circumstance concocts a strange brew of perception. The urgent, on-the-ground nature of Hooligan Sparrow lends to its immediacy. It’s real-time. It’s civilian. It’s a modern espionage tale of corruption, fear, and paranoia. And the stakes for the exiled and the victims couldn’t be higher. This is all embodied in its multi-layer observer-participant-subject-craftswoman, Wang.
Hooligan Sparrow is a first-person immersion into the dark underbelly of China’s communist gallows. The filmmaking is as fluid as its subject. It’s a collage of handheld, digital footage, compiled from a DSLR camera, spy glasses, mobile phones, a voice recorder – an arsenal of modern technology. Wang the craftswoman creates an audio-visual hypnotic warp that juxtaposes and unites images, commentary, and themes that mimics the confusion and thrill of the activist’s plight. There ends up being so many threads to follow in the film that at times it’s difficult for Wang to keep a coherent vision. But the aesthetic is fitting.
Underneath the fleeing and paranoia, there is a subtext of a land lost. It’s a lament for a homeland and a portrait of a crazed, corrupt, many-tentacled beast of a government. So much imagery is spent of the travel, that if you took out the protests, invasions, and abuse, it’d be something of a Chinese reverie. Undoubtedly, that awareness is purposefully heightened. Wang loves China. It is her home. It is Sparrow’s home. In its lamentation, it’s ultimately a film of desire. It mirrors the longing of its subjects. They want peace and justice. They want to live in harmony and to find joy.
Communism’s vice-grip on the Chinese populace is devastating. Fear and paranoia force the working class to essentially become pawns in the government’s oppression. They are abused, and in fear, they become the hands and feet of the work against Sparrow. Townspeople threaten her and her daughter. They are told to never return many times. Justice, peace, harmony – those things are impossible if the people don’t take up arms and revolt.
At the end of the film, one of the activists who helped Sparrow and Wang flee tells Wang (now safely in America with the footage China threatened to confiscate and destroy) that when you are oppressed and defenseless, the only thing you can do is document the atrocities. Film is the arsenal against injustice. When the stories can be documented, they can be seen. And in our globalized world that can go a long way. Thankfully, some justice is found for the six girls of Hainan, but at day’s end, those who did the work have been exiled. Hooligan Sparrow is a call to arms. More voices, bodies, eyes, and ears are needed.