Even if your awareness of global news barely extends beyond the headlines, the phrase “government repression” pop ups with such frequency and ubiquity that it’s lost what little force it had in the first place. The POV documentary Hooligan Sparrow, premiering Monday, October 17, on PBS, restores to that neutral term the chilling fear and visceral paranoia it should instill, piecing together evidence of the Chinese state’s intimidation and violence against human rights activist Ye Haiyan through secretly recorded footage. A compelling biography, a tense mystery, an infuriating exposé, and a dread-filled experience all at once, it’s a must-watch for its diaristic chronicling of the heartbreakingly high costs of fighting against state-sanctioned rape culture.
Named after Ye’s nom de guerre, Hooligan Sparrow begins with a shockingly brazen crime. A principal absconds with six girls aged 11 to 14, who are sexually assaulted in a hotel room in a different town. Rapists are imprisoned for life or given the death sentence, while child sex trafficking garners a far lesser sentence of 5 to 15 years, and so the girls are paid $2,000 by the principal and labeled prostitutes by the police. Swooping in to combat this gross injustice are Ye and a small cadre of her fellow protesters, who hold up provocative signs like “Get a room with me; leave the kids alone” designed to go viral, even on the censored Chinese internet. The mysterious man who gets a little too close while recording the demonstration is terrifying enough. But they don’t compare to the videos Ye and her colleagues make just before going public. Human rights activists are sometimes committed to mental hospitals, forced into detention centers, or worse. “To prevent [such fates],” one protester explains, “we do a testimony in advance stating that we won’t commit suicide.” Another pleads for her loved ones to look for her should she disappear after the rally.
For Hooligan Sparrow, filmmaker Nanfu Wang embedded herself with Ye, a divorced single mother, and her movingly resilient 13-year-old daughter, Yaxin, for several months. Visually, the portrait of mother and child are disrupted by the director’s own fugitive status after her affiliation with Ye made her a target of the government as well. But Wang’s first-person narration and outsider status within the accommodating but secretive activist community are assets to her thematically dense tale. Her naïveté shows, as when a police officer instantly notices that her glasses double as a camera. But the surreal dystopia that is Ye’s China comes into greater focus through Wang’s eyes, as the filmmaker discovers a foreign land within her country.
A few days after the child-rape protest, over a dozen people break into Ye’s apartment and beat her. A group of demonstrators — Ye thinks they’re paid by the government — stand outside her building to protest against her, while the police do nothing. That is, until they arrest Ye a few days after for assault. The activist fought against her attackers with a knife, and now an ostensible victim wants justice from her, though Ye and her faithful lawyer, Wang Yu, don’t know that other injured party’s name, the scope of his lacerations, or if the man whose photos are being used against Ye was ever in her apartment in the first place. No matter: Ye and her daughter are evicted. When they move 300 miles away, they’re dragged out of their new home and told by the local police there, “If I ever see you again, I’ll break your legs.”
The Ye family’s situation reaches more harrowing lows after that, but their story isn’t an altogether depressing one. Wang skimps on the activist’s personal history, but it’s clear that Ye strives for a full life, complete with lighter moments with her colleagues, a supportive boyfriend, and karaoke sessions with her friends and her daughter. (The teenager finds the parade of threatening policemen that regularly flip her life inside out “ridiculous.”) It’s rare that we want political docs to be more heavy-handed, but Hooligan Sparrow could bear to be, especially when the backstory behind the group rape of those preteen girls proves even more evil than the horrific surface details alleged.
Despite the brief running time (83 minutes), there’s much to nitpick about the film. Its framing device — about how Wang would get her footage out of China — is perhaps its least effective story line, and the timeline of events could use more firming up. The story flabs in the middle, as Ye, Wang, and their group are chased from one not-so-safe-house to another, and the intense focus on Ye’s travails neglect other key details, like the unexplained, months-long imprisonment of her attorney. But Hooligan Sparrow’s greatest limitation is the one shared by most documentaries: Now that we know about these atrocities, what can we do about them? Its filmmaker seems content to shoot and share. Our howling impotence demands more.