Hooligan Sparrow, from Director Nanfu Wang, Wins Big on Chinese Child Rape/Sex Crimes Documentary

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Hooligan Sparrow, from first time Director Nanfu Wang, tells the story of four girls raped by their principal and a sex trade worker who fights to exchange her trade so that no other children would be raped.

Wang followed a group of activist seeking justice for school children who were raped by their principal; the activists and Wang were subsequently chased around the country by secret police and angry mobs incited by the Chinese government. 

The danger is palpable as intrepid young filmmaker Nanfu Wang follows maverick activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a Hooligan Sparrow) and her band of colleagues to Hainan Province in southern China, to protest the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal.

Marked as enemies of the state, the activists are under constant government surveillance and faced interrogation, harassment, and imprisonment. Sparrow, who gained notoriety with her advocacy work for sex workers’ rights, continues to champion girls’ and women’s rights and arms herself with the power and reach of social media.

Filmmaker Wang becomes a target along with Sparrow, as she faces destroyed cameras and intimidation. Yet she bravely and tenaciously keeps shooting, guerrilla-style, with secret recording devices and hidden-camera glasses, and in the process, she exposes a startling number of undercover security agents on the streets.

Eventually, through smuggling footage out of the country, Wang is able tell the story of her journey with the extraordinary revolutionary Sparrow, her fellow activists, and their seemingly impossible battle for human rights.

Hooligan Sparrow is Nanfu Wang’s feature debut. It’s executive produced by Andy Cohen, Executive Producer for Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Special Jury Prize, Sundance 2012) and Alison Klayman, Director/Producer of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry; co-written by Mark Monroe, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and six-time Sundance veteran: The Cove (Winner, Best Documentary 2010 Academy Awards & Best Documentary Script, W.G.A. 2010); with original score by Nathan Halpern, Rich Hill (Grand Jury Prize, 2015), and graphics by Garry Waller, Watchers of the Sky (Special Jury Prize, Sundance 2014).  

The Director, Nanfu Wang provided this statement:

I first heard about Ye Haiyan (who is known more widely by her nickname, Hooligan Sparrow, in China) a few years ago when I read an article online about a Chinese woman who was offering to work as a sex worker – for free. I’ve lived in China most of my life, and I’ve always been interested in issues related to sex workers’ rights, so I was curious to learn more about this woman and what motivated her.

Sparrow had a long history of advocating for women’s rights in China, and her offer of free sex in the Ten Yuan Brothel stemmed from a desire to expose the terrible working conditions in the brothel and also the desperate lives of the migrant workers who visited them.

As I researched Sparrow, I learned that like me, she came from a poor farming village with limited access to education. I appreciated her respect for people whom Chinese society rejected, and I shared her desire to understand their lives more deeply. I reached out to her via e-mail in early 2013 to see if she’d be willing to let me film her as part of a larger video project about sex workers in China. She replied, “When you’re in China, we’ll talk.”

On May 14th, 2013, I returned to China from the U.S where I had lived for two years at the time. When I landed and got a hold of her, she was in the midst of preparing for a public protest with a number of other activists. Two government officials in southern China had taken six schoolgirls to a hotel for a night, and the local government seemed poised to hand down a perfunctory sentence. Sparrow and her fellow activists wanted justice to be served for the girls and their families, so they planned to stage a public demonstration denouncing the government and the officials, a move that could land all of them in prison.

The chain of events I witnessed in the months that followed the protest shocked me. I’ve never had illusions about fairness in China’s justice system or the accountability of its government. But I never expected to see ordinary people turn on their neighbors who were fighting for their rights. I never expected to be attacked by screaming mobs just for filming on the street. I never expected to be interrogated by national security agents, and that my family and friends would be harassed and threatened by secret police. 

But this is the China I saw.

Nanfu Wang is an independent filmmaker based in New York City. Her feature debut Hooligan Sparrow premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Wang was born in a remote farming village in Jiangxi Province, China.

After losing her father at the age of 12, Wang was forced to forgo formal education and take whatever work she could to support her family. Unable to afford high school, she studied at a vocational school until she secured work as a teacher at a primary school at the age of 16, teaching herself English during her spare time.

After several years of working, Wang was admitted to a university’s Continuing Education Program, where she studied English literature. At the age of 22, she was awarded a full fellowship to attend a graduate program in English Language and Literature at Shanghai University.

Realizing that she wanted to help tell the stories of people who came from backgrounds like hers, Wang decided to pursue graduate film studies, first in the journalism school at Ohio University and later at New York University’s documentary program. Wang holds three master's degrees from New York University, Ohio University, and Shanghai University.

Since completing her studies, Wang has produced short films that have been distributed on many platforms and translated into several languages. Her work often features the stories of marginalized or mistreated people. Wang continues to seek out and tell the stories of people who have been ignored by their societies. Wang is a recipient of the Sundance Documentary Fund and Bertha Britdoc Journalism Fund, and a Sundance and IFP supported filmmaker.

Hooligan Sparrow will have a National Television Broadcast Debut on PBS Series POV on Monday, October 17, 2016.

Hooligan Sparrow, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was the Opening Night Film at Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York, has won prizes and numerous international film festivals including Best Documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival!

Nanfu Wang brings surprising courage as she tackles a cultural system and government knowing her future could be erased and she thrown into prison and put to death.

The documentary, solid and award winning, brings to mind great journalism exposes that ignite change and cause the slow moving and often non-existent wheels of justice to turn.

The riveting documentary Hooligan Sparrow, which follows the incredible story of a group of activists in China who risk their lives to protest against the sexual abuse of schoolgirls by their principal debuts on the PBS television series POV on Monday, October 17, 2016.  

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