Nanfu Wang’s documentary entitled Hooligan Sparrow follows women rights activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow) and her struggle for justice for six school-girls who were the victims of rape in China. The film has made the shortlist of nominees vying for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at next year’s 2017 Academy Awards.
In May 2013, six elementary school girls aged 11-14 were sexually assaulted by their principal and a government official in Hainan Province, China. The men were arrested, but rather than being charged with rape, they received a lighter sentence of prostitution with underage girls.
The children were raped, but treated as prostitutes in the case. This shamed the child victims into silence and let the rapists off the hook.
Ye Haiyan (Sparrow) staged a protest at the school with her supporters, including human rights lawyer Wang Yu. They stood outside the school and distributed copies of China’s laws on women and children’s rights. They were seen as enemies of the state for their vocal protests and were interrogated, harassed, and imprisoned.
Sparrow continued to protest and held up a poster that read:
“Hey principal: get a room with me and leave the school kids alone!”
Someone took a photo of Sparrow with the poster and posted it online. The post went viral, raising public awareness of the sexual assaults.
The documentary felt like a thriller at times, as the police and hired thugs harassed the protesters. Wang recorded the harassment with her camera. At one point, the frame jerks wildly as the police try take her camera away as it captures the chilling sound of Sparrow being beaten by the police. This is what happens to women who raise awareness about sexual abuse in China.
Wang was also threatened by the authorities, who destroyed her cameras and confiscated her footage. She continued to film by using a secret recording device and revealed a startling number of undercover security agents on the street. As Sparrow was arrested on trumped-up assault charges, we hear her warn officials:
“You can kill me, but you can’t kill the truth.”
Wang and her husband, Bao Longjun, who is also a human rights lawyer, were placed under house arrest because of their stand against local authorities. The state media ran a campaign to try to discredit Wang’s reputation by accusing her of falsifying her credentials. Their son was also placed under surveillance and lives with Wang’s mother.
Sparrow and her 13-year-old daughter were eventually kidnapped by the secret police, who left them on the side of a road in a remote area with all their possessions.
At the end of the film, we see artist Ai Wei Wei’s 2014 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. One of his installations displayed Ye Haiyan’s possessions that were dumped on the side of the road and arranged exactly as they were in the film.
Wang eventually smuggled the footage out of China. Police threatened her family in China to pressure her to stop making the documentary. Wang currently lives in the U.S. as she fears for her safety back in China.
Several human rights films have earned Oscar nominations in the Best Documentary Feature category, including Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, Virguna, The Square, and 5 Broken Cameras. If Hooligan Sparrow wins the award, it will also be a win for human rights in China.
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