You might not know Ye Haiyan’s name, but
if you attended the Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, you might
recognize all her worldly possessions. When Ye and her young daughter were
summarily evicted as part of the Communist government’s relentless harassment campaign,
a picture of their meager belongings dumped by the side of the road went viral.
Being one of her social media followers, Teacher Ai recreated the photo in a
dramatic installation. However, Ye is not the only target of the CCP’s orchestrated
thuggery. Her lawyer and her documentarian were also followed, intimidated, and
in one case arrested without charge. Nanfu Wang shows guts worthy of her
subject throughout Hooligan Sparrow, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Ye Haiyan (a.k.a. Sparrow) first came to
prominence as advocate for sex worker rights. Always one to walk the walk, Ye
went to work in the very brothels she protested, becoming an underground media
sensation when she offered free sex for migrant workers. In 2013, Ye, human
rights attorney Wang Yu, and a group of equally outraged women protested a
Hainan grade school principal who abducted, pimped-out, and a raped six of his
appallingly young students. Although he and a local government official were
caught dead-to-rights, the state declined to prosecute, claiming insufficient
evidence. Ye and her fellow activists launched a public protest against the
principal and his protectors, earning the full wrath of the state.
What follows is even more intense and galling
than viewers will expect, even if they binge watch Ai Weiwei documentaries
every weekend. We watch as Ye is attacked by a gang of home-invading ruffians
and then arrested for assault when she defends herself. She and Wang are
constantly followed and frequently accosted by mobs on the street. At one
point, Ye is held incommunicado for days as Wang Yu vainly struggled to visit
You might think you have heard a lot about
the state of human rights in China, or more precisely the lack there of, but
the viciousness of the campaign against Ye is lower than you can possibly imagine.
Obviously, the political implications of Ye’s story are absolutely radioactive.
However, this is a deeply personal film that viscerally captures the fear and
moral outrage of its subjects. There are times Ye and Wang are afraid for their
lives, with very good reason.
As if that were not enough, Wang also
structures the film quite adroitly. Using footage of the original protest, she
dramatically brings it all full circle. This is independent filmmaking at its
most courageous. By keeping faith with her subjects, she put herself at risk, which
is beyond admirable. Frankly, the preening, self-congratulatory “Yes Men”
should die of shame if they ever see Hooligan
Sparrow. (Wouldn’t you like to see them try their stunts in a country that
does not respect the rule of law? That’s never going to happen, because they
Sadly, Ye Haiyan was not able to attend
the Sundance premiere, because the government confiscated her passport. Lawyer
Wang was also missing from the post-screening Q&A, because she has been in
prison since last July. Of all the everyday heroes in Sparrow, she might just be the most idealistic and dedicated, so
her current state is deeply disturbing (#freewangyu). Unfortunately, this
timely film keeps getting timelier.
is the film at Sundance that most deserves film-lovers’ support. It is an extraordinary
debut from Wang that would be an incredible white-knuckle thriller, if it were
not so frighteningly real. Very, very highly recommended, Hooligan Sparrow screens today (1/23) in Salt Lake, this Sunday
(1/24), Wednesday (1/27), and Friday (1/29) in Park City, and this Thursday
(1/28) in Sundance Mountain Resort.
Labels: Documentary, Nanfu Wang, Sundance '16, Wang Yu, Ye Haiyan