Festival Review: The Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 opens with Chinese human rights documentary Hooligan Sparrow.

Hooligan Sparrow

Hooligan Sparrow

Director: Nanfu Wang

1h 24min | Documentary, Crime, Drama | 10 March 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival returns for its 20th Anniversary Year in London, running from 9-18 March 2016 at Barbican, British Museum, Curzon Soho, Picturehouse Central, Ritzy Picturehouse.

The opening film of the HRWFF 2016 at the Curzon Soho - Nanfu Wang’s troubling documentary Hooligan Sparrow - begins with footage showing Wang herself being attacked by a group of men in a Chinese city street as she tries to film. The documentary, narrated by Wang, then winds back to show us how she came to this point, and the story related to us leaves that harassment looking like a kind of symbol for the treatment of those who dare speak out about human rights issues in China too loudly, or who do so without the kind of protective spotlight figures like artist Ai Wei Wei enjoy. This is a tale of the true cost of fighting both the authorities and wider conservative cultural norms as an activist in China, and though compelling, it is a take depressingly unglamorous and free of triumph.

Though Nanfu Wang is the camera operator, the film is really focused on maverick rights activist Ye Haiyan (aka “Hooligan Sparrow”), who Wang accompanied through a torrid period where her outspokenness shot her into the spotlight in her home country, and internationally. When Sparrow and her fellow activists started protesting the sexual abuse of six schoolgirls by a local headmaster and government officials in Hainan province, they soon ran head first into the ignorance and aggression of the authorities, which, scarily, seemed  to channel their oppression largely through plainclothes figures (all men) and background subversion tactics rather then open abuse through the official state apparatus. Most of what we see in this doc is Wang’s filmed record of the fallout from this bold move.

Sparrow and her colleagues, including the soft-spoken but tireless lawyer Wang (who repeatedly tramps up and down the huge country by train taking on hopeless cases), see the schoolgirl case as a depressingly familiar symptom of an authoritarian system and the culture it breeds. Perversely, the girls are at risk themselves of being fined or imprisoned themselves as prostitutes if money was exchanged, despite them being underage. Wang bemoans the fact that such abuse often comes about through the desire of corrupt public servants to curry favour with government figures by selling them young girls.  This particular kind of abuse in modern China is a particular concern for Sparrow, who gained notoriety years before for offering free sex in a brothel in order to highlight the dangers that criminalized and marginalized sex workers face.

Sparrow herself is a charismatic and down to earth figure who it is impossible to not admire, all the more so when we start seeing the ratcheting up of the campaign against her and her team. Frustratingly, attacks against Sparrow rarely seem clearly linked to the authorities (when she does contact police officers they usually fob her off), thus making an official response harder. A group of men harass her outside her apartment and try to break in, with the police absurdly arresting Sparrow once they arrive on charges of attacking the intruders. Sparrow is arrested and released, but then thrown out of her apartment by her landlord at short notice, and even when settled elsewhere, groups of men can be seen waiting for her outside in the street. One encounter with such stalkers, captured by Wang’s handheld camera, is truly frightening, as she and Sparrow flee up their apartment block stairs from once such mob as another activist is caught by the gang and left behind, his plaintive screams being heard in the background. More evictions and more harassment follow Sparrow across China.

Perhaps the most memorable – and saddening – image the film presents is a camera phone shot of Sparrow and her incredibly upbeat young daughter sitting on a roadside beside a pile of their belongings, the result of another eviction, with each one leaving them less and less to live on. It is a stark reminder of where being an activist in China actually can take you, a far cry from the abstract realm of online petitions and blogs that swirl around.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.