HOOLIGAN SPARROW screened as a part of the World Documentary category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. For more information, head here.
There’s only one word to really describe Hooligan Sparrow: badass. Badass because director Nanfu Wang faced incredible, and often terrifying, obstacles making her film. Some filmmakers have trouble with funding. Wang was targeted by the Chinese government because of her project and had to literally smuggle her footage back to the United States. Bad. Ass.
Hooligan Sparrow starts off with an intense scene of a group of men threatening Wang. (“If you film us, we will break your camera.”) The stakes are already high and the tension is palpable. From there, with narration from Wang, we’re taken back to the beginning of her story when she first meets well-known activist Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow) and her colleagues. They are travelling to a southern region of China to protest a case of school-aged girls being sexually abused by their principal. Sparrow’s presence draws a lot of attention to both the case and the activists and soon they are facing harassment and intimidation. After Sparrow is wrongfully imprisoned and subsequently evicted from her home, the crew is on the run with nowhere to go. They travel from city to city, only to be bullied and kicked out of each one. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking to watch.
Wang manages to both educate on the human rights crisis in China and paint an intimate and humane portrait of the tireless activists who are fighting for change. And as much as the documentary is about Sparrow, it’s also very much Wang’s story as well. Before the film, she explained that she grew up in rural China and experienced her first movie in her twenties. After falling in love with the medium, she decided she wanted to make movies to show the China she saw to audiences. Hooligan Sparrow is her very first documentary and also her first experience with activism.
And if all of that wasn’t impressive (ahem, badass, ahem) enough, the documentary is beautifully filmed and edited. Wang had to work with what she had—sometimes that involved spy glasses or audio recorders hiding in her pocket—but she pulled it all off with an assured sense of style and little artistic flairs.
This is one of those documentaries that will leave you enraged and amazed all at once. Please, please, please see this is you are able to. You owe it to Wang, her film team, Sparrow, and all of the activists fighting for their lives.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.