Storytelling and Empathy Shaped by Experiences: An Interview with ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ Director Nanfu Wang


It is ironically easy for people to come to a conclusion about an issue as big as human rights activism in China but to forget about who are really the souls behind the big words of “rule of law”, “rights”, and “activism”? For 84 minutes, Hooligan Sparrow, directed by Nanfu Wang, allows you to be close enough to some ordinary Chinese people fighting for women’s rights and their families in China.

Hooligan Sparrow begins with a protest of a case in Wanning City in Hainan Province in which six middle school girls were sexually abused by their principal. Furious about what happened and the reaction of the police, Ye Haiyan, a single mother living with her teenage daughter and boyfriend and known as “Hooligan Sparrow” in the online activism community, and several other activists including lawyer Wang Yu went to the school where the crime occurred, posted a slogan at the front gate “Get a room with me and leave the school kids alone!”, and handed out educational materials about children’s and women’s legal rights. The protest went viral on the internet with a lot of discussion and support from Chinese social media. However, the police detained Ye for defending herself after she was assaulted and harassed by thugs for being an activist. She was finally released, but continued to be followed and intimidated and was forced out of her home and other sanctuaries in various cities by secret police and unknown forces.

n May 2013, Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu handed out UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to passersby at a protest against against an elementary school principal and a government official who raped six girls aged between 11 and 14 in Wanning City, Hainan Province. Wang Yu is currently in jail, charged with subversion. Credit: Nanfu Wang

In May 2013, Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu handed out UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to passersby at a protest against against an elementary school principal and a government official who raped six girls aged between 11 and 14 in Wanning City, Hainan Province. Wang Yu was imprisoned, charged with subversion. Credit: Nanfu Wang

Although shot only with a DSLR and a pair of hidden camera glasses which were later destroyed by the police, the documentary is intimately shot and edited to evoke emotions. In addition to showing Sparrow’s plight, the director said she wanted the audience to see what she saw and feel what she felt during those three months in China with Sparrow. With the occasional appearance of the director herself on camera, we feel like her: brave, fearless, but intimidated — exactly what activists everywhere experience everyday. Ye Haiyan and Wang Yu were both detained by authorities for subverting state power.  Ye’s detention was brief, but at the time the film was completed, Wang was still imprisoned. This is only a minor sacrifice for advocating for rights without government support.

Ye has moved back to her hometown and is trying to make a living by writing. The documentary has been a huge success in the documentary world and, having been picked up by Netflix and the PBS series POV (premieres October 17, check local listings), is expected to reach a bigger audience and raise awareness about her and activism in China. However, she has recently asked her readers to not promote this documentary in China because she does not want to attract too much attention from the international community and be the target of the government again. Meanwhile, she wants people to understand that it is urgent for Chinese people to feel, without external pressure, obliged to think about what kind of society they want their kids to live in.

Lawyer Wang Yu was released on August 1, 2016 together with a video confession of accusing former colleagues of connecting with international organizations and underground powers to subvert the state. “I won’t be used by them anymore,” Ms. Wang said in the video in which she also indicates she was treated with full respect of human rights during her stay in jail, will never accept any human rights awards from overseas, and that she plans to make family as a priority after her release.

Wang’s first feature-length film is incredibly well done and has received a lot of support from rights organizations and audiences, offering us the opportunity to witness the cost of being an activist. The question remains: Is it worth it?

Shortly after a week-long run in late July at Cinema Village in Manhattan, we talked to the director about her background, her creative process, and ways of continuing to make an impact.

Tell us about your experience growing up in China as a girl.

I was born in a rural village in Jiangxi Province. The village was really really small and remote as well. The highest education for the villagers is elementary school. My parents were both teachers; so, I kind of grew up in school. When I was nine, my dad sent me away to a boarding school in the city. Then, a few years later when I was in second year in middle school, my father passed away, and that was very devastating to my family because all of a sudden my mom lost financial support and we had huge medical bills.

My mom told me that I had to quit school and get a job to support my younger brother, who was eight at the time. The family’s expectations for boys was to go to high school and college eventually, but for me, it was OK not to go to high school or college. I got my first job when I was sixteen, and most my friends later went to high school and college. I was very jealous and wanted to be able to go to university one day. I started participating in self-study and continuing education programs and later got a bachelor’s degree which allowed me to apply for graduate school. In 2007, I was accepted with a full scholarship to Shanghai University for grad school. I studied there for three years –that was my first graduate degree — and I worked there for one year.

Then, I realized I didn’t really like the university job and wanted to do something creative. That was the time when I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to be in journalism telling stories. I applied for journalism school in the U.S., and after learning different aspects of journalism, TV, and radio, I fell in love with documentary because I like visual story telling.  I also thought in order to tell the stories I really wanted to tell in China, I have to be independent. So, that’s how I started Hooligan Sparrow.

You said that you are interested in marginalized groups of people, can you tell us more about how you got interested in them?

When I first came in the U.S. I had this idea that I wanted to go back to China to tell stories about the health care system in China because I believed one of the reasons why my father passed away at a fairly young age was the lack of access to healthcare and because my family was poor. He would have lived much longer than he did if we were able to afford the treatment. So, I thought I would go back to China and make a film to tell a story about hospitals and how hard it is for ordinary people or poor people who don’t have healthcare insurance or means of reimbursement to get treatment.

Another story I had in mind was about the education system because I myself didn’t go to high school or college, and in China, you know, if you don’t go to high school, you cannot go to college through the national college entrance exam. There is only one path for people to get an education, and for me that was a huge struggle.

Stories like these attract me. Sex workers was another one, because in the village I grew up, I knew there were a lot of women who don’t have skills and went to the city. When they came back, I learned that they were doing sex work in the cities. In the village, people discriminated against them and gossiped about them. There are some people that I know had a hard life from this experience. So, I thought about telling that story as well. Those are the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

Director Nanfu Wang. Photo by Mark Mann/Deadline.

Director Nanfu Wang. Photo by Mark Mann/Deadline.

Did your points of view on sex workers and women’s rights in China change during the shooting, and how does that affect the documentary?

Not necessarily. My opinion changed, but its more like, before I made this film I was pretty ignorant about this issue. I didn’t know much about the world of activism, and I didn’t know any activists. Now, I have really come to understand that world. I got to the heart of these people’s lives, really stayed close with them, and understand their day to day lives, struggles, and fights they have experienced.

So, it is really a learning and understanding process for me. For other people, I would hope such process could happen to them at some point of their life — to learn something that they didn’t know before, to keep learning about their society, their country, and the place where they live, and to have a more independent way of thinking about the things people hear and see.

My hope is not only to get people to know the story featured in the film but also to get them to think about other things that are not in the film. Start thinking about other people and things in other worlds in a different way. Be more critical and have more critical thinking.

How did the film evolve during the creative process?

I think it is the same process for every film that has been made. You have a lot of cuts, and you start thinking about how to improve it. The earlier cuts when I was in film school — I hadn’t graduated at the time — was only 60 minutes, and now it is over 80 minutes. There were 24 minutes of content added in. It is a process of figuring out what’s missing in the story especially since I wanted the audience to experience what I experienced while I was filming. I wanted people to see what I saw and how I felt. Because I spent three months shooting, I had to really condense the footage into an hour or an hour and a half. Otherwise, a lot of things in the film could be missing or confusing and people couldn’t get it. So, it’s a process of figuring out how to retell the story.

Tell us more about the fund to help activists’ children. How does it work?

When I was filming, a lot of things that happened have saddened me, and the one particularly sad thing was seeing Sparrow’s daughter Yaxin. She suffers so much at such a young age because what her mother has done, and to me it was really heartbreaking to see that she was rejected many times from school.

One story that was not shown in the film was when they moved to a new city, Sparrow would go to the school and talk to the administration. She wanted her daughter to be enrolled in the school. They would say “Yes,” and take the tuition fee, but then a few days later they would call back and say, “ Sorry, we got some notice from higher level and we can’t take your daughter in. You know the reason.” Sparrow didn’t know what to do or how to change this.

From my own experience of not being able to go to high school and college, I know how hard it is to get out of the situation. So, I was really hoping that I could somehow help to secure the education of her daughter and other people like Yaxin. That’s why I set this fund. It is through a non-profit organization in China because I want to have the impact, but I don’t necessarily have the expertise to manage the fund and deliver it to China. There is an organization called Humanitarian China. They have been very active helping activists, and they have connections to safely transfer the money to the people and make sure they get it. If people want to help, they can go to the Hooligan Sparrow website and donate.

Any plans to make further impact?

I know there are a lot of organizations and individuals who are working really hard to change the current situation, especially to free the lawyers who are still in jail. I think my job is not to individually start something new but to channel all the people’s effort into one single and strong power. I really wanted to work with other organizations because they have a wider reach, and they can use the film to raise awareness and effect some change.

Sometimes documentary filmmakers become the target of the government, and it is hard for them to continue making film in China. What’s your career plan?

My interest has always been telling stories. Right now, I’m working on another film that takes place in Cuba. You don’t have to be in China to tell stories, and I really want to go to different parts of the world to tell stories, especially to places I have never been to. That’s what attracted me. What makes a film has nothing to do with language. It’s all about human emotions that people can relate to around the world. What makes people relate to Sparrow is not because the language she is speaking but the fundamental things about humanity. And we all want is freedom, faith, dream. I think as long as you can show that in your film, no matter what the film is about and which country it is in, it can be a powerful story.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Lead image: Ye Haiyan, “Hooligan Sparrow”  Sign reads: “All China Women’s Federation is a farce. China’s women’s rights are dead. 1949-2013 Fallen.”  Image by Nanfu Wang