The Sundance Film Festival has morphed from a small event, that attempted to attract more filmmakers to Utah, to the largest independent film festival in the United States. It is held on an annual basis and showcases new work of independent filmmakers from all over the world. Now that a pass to the festival costs hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, only the most daring independent films are shown. ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ is as daring as it gets.
This documentary, released in 2016, portrays the struggle of human rights activists in China. It follows the path of activist Ye Haiyan, also known as ‘Hooligan Sparrow,’ as she protests the unfairly light sentencing of a school principal who sexually assaulted six young girls under his tutelage. The documentary is not just about this case, however. As filmmaker Nanfu Wang followed Haiyan, documenting protests and arrests, she was also forced to document the Chinese government’s attempts to silence her art.
When Wang decided to make Haiyan the subject of her film, Haiyan was already being sought out by the government for openly advocating against the accused principal, amongst other violation of women’s rights in China. She may have been most well known for agreeing to become a worker in a Chinese brothel for free, only to report on the atrocities she experienced and witnessed as a women in the sex service industry. Her notoriety made life dangerous. She was constantly chased by the police and by mobs of angry citizens.
When Wang was filming, she too became a target.
Wang knew that the film was not going to be easy to shoot, so she utilized small, unnoticeable equipment to shoot the bulk of her film. She even attached a miniature camera to her glasses, which created shaky, yet powerful, shots. Her team of filmmakers were also not left out of the violence. Wang got into several physical confrontations with the police, and members of her team were, at points, beaten by officials. However, they all pressed on to record Haiyan and the other activists draw light on what the principal did, and eventually get a conviction.
Even after the filming was done, the Chinese government still proved to be a problem for Wang. She was faced with the task of getting the footage out of the country. As the government reserves its right to inspect all mail traveling internationally, Wang made the decision to have friends drive the footage back to the United States in small increments. Only with this careful planning was ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ able to make it to Sundance.
We must admire those who put their safety on the line, such as Wang, for the sake of informing the world of important issues. We may not have known about Haiyan without this film, or about the important obstructions of justice she is exposing with her activism. Both women, Wang and Haiyan, are equally admirable for their brave work.