“That’s me with the camera…Those guys are watching me because of the camera…What follows is the story I captured before they took the camera from me.” – Wang Nanfu, Hooligan Sparrow
It’s sometimes easy to forget how crucial a role technology plays in our era of social activism. For the majority of people, the usage of a smartphone or an interaction on social media have become so ingrained in their lives that they often underestimate the significance of the technology which they rely on and use. However, for people that are confronted with brutality and repression in their daily lives, technology is not merely a boon of convenience, it can be a weapon of defense. For the abused and persecuted, to record what is happening to them is to launch a protest and documentation, supported by the aide of technology, becomes an act of activism itself, a refusal to be silenced.
But what happens if those who are abused are further dispossessed of their means to speak? What happens, for instance, if one’s camera is taken away? The threat of being forcibly silenced and robbed of one’s power to document is a subject that is constantly foregrounded in the documentary Hooligan Sparrow by first-time director Wang Nanfu.
Hooligan Sparrow begins with a 2013 protest in Hainan Province, China led by Ye Haiyan, aka “Hooligan Sparrow,” an activist who first gained widespread attention in China because of her efforts to legalize and improve the conditions of China’s sex industry. The protest that is shown at the beginning of the film was organized by Ye and a band of activists as a response to the rape of six elementary school girls by their school principal and his accomplice. We will soon learn that this case is far from an isolated one and that in recent years, the offering of young girls has become an appallingly common means of “gifting” and bribery between government officials in China. The significance of the case notwithstanding, Ye and her devotion to social activism actually weren’t always meant to be the focus of Hooligan Sparrow. In fact, Wang’s plans had initially been to film Chinese sex workers, subjects which Ye had ample access to, but all of this changed when the fallout of the protest in Hainan began to impact on Ye and soon extended to the director herself.
Not long after the protest, a group of people broke into Ye’s house and started to beat Ye up. When the police arrived, they arrested Ye for assault, despite the fact that Ye had fought back for reasons of self-defense. Even when Ye is later released, thanks to the concerted efforts of her colleagues and the rousing support of Chinese and foreign netizens, her plight is far from over. Ye is evicted from her apartment and is hounded by the police and hired rioters. As Wang becomes more involved in the activist work of Ye and her co-workers, the imperative to film what is happening to Ye, which seems to be clearly linked to the Hainan protest, becomes more urgent. What has also become more apparent is the adversarial reaction people have towards the presence of Wang’s filming camera and the dangers she faces persisting in her guerrilla filmmaking.
One of the reasons why Hooligan Sparrow is such a compelling film is that it successfully conveys the sense of peril that the filmmaker and her main subject were constantly subject to in their lives. Smartly put together like a taut, suspenseful thriller, Wang’s documentary has the viewer worried not only for the well being of its subjects, but also for the existence of the film itself. The fear Wang has of her camera and her other instruments of recording being taken away is a fear that never quite goes away during the process of viewing the film, despite the fact that we as viewers are obviously watching a finished product in which at least some footage was salvaged. One can even argue that the missing pieces, the gaps in documentation, make the film even more powerful, just like the audio recording sequences in the film bring out a degree of disquietude that is somehow more unsettling because we can only hear and are unable to see what has transpired.
Clocking in at 91 minutes, Hooligan Sparrow almost seems too short for viewers who crave a sense of resolution. The film’s conclusion refuses to offer the audience reprieve or false hope. We see at the end of the documentary that many of Ye’s fellow activists are still incarcerated and that the outcome of Ye’s story, whether or not she was able to triumph against her oppressors, remains undecided. It is an ending that communicates to us how the events presented in the film are not merely incidents of the past, but are atrocities that continue to be perpetuated in the present and might well continue into the future if we refuse to acknowledge its existence.