The dissidents who speak out against towering monolithic regimes — who have the courage to play David to the Goliath of totalitarianism — are often instrumental in making those regimes fall. To give one obvious example: The crack-up of the Soviet Union might have been unimaginable without the writings and activism of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In China today, a roughly equivalent figure — in status and heroism — is Ai Weiwei, who has leveraged his image as an internationally celebrated artist to shine a relentless light on the government’s human-rights violations. Ai knows that his fame, to a degree, can protect him — though not always. (He has been incarcerated and has suffered the agonies of “interrogation.”) But what of the dissidents who have no fame? They’re on the high wire of freedom-fighting without a net, and Nanfu Wang’s “Hooligan Sparrow,” a whistleblowing documentary made with fearless guerrilla cunning, is a portrait of one of those people.
Her name is Ye Haiyan, and in 2013 she caused a stir by standing up against a case of child rape so flagrant that it galvanized a major sector of the Chinese public. In Hainan Province, six girls aged 11 to 14 went missing for close to 24 hours. It turned out that they had spent the night at a hotel with their school principal and his accomplice, who paid them $2,000 in order to abuse them. The money is significant, because it allowed the crimes to be classified as “prostitution,” and China’s prostitution laws wound up letting both men off the hook. Wang’s film follows the attempt by Ye, a veteran advocate of women’s rights, to protest the case. One may well ask: Why would the government of China have any vested interest in protecting men who have committed crimes against children? The horrifying answer is that, in Nanfu Wang’s words, “China is so corrupt that it has become fashionable for government officials to have sex with young girls.” This particular case needed to be hushed up so that the entire can of worms could remain tightly shut.
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It’s a sign of how prostitution has been woven into the mainstream of Chinese society that when Ye first planted herself on the map of protest, it was by posing as a sex worker named “Sparrow.” She wanted to expose the conditions within brothels, and in doing so, she was able to draw attention to herself without recrimination. But from the moment she starts to organize protests about the Hainan case, the government is on her back. She’s under constant surveillance by the police, and when a gang of brothel owners shows up at her door and attempts to beat her up, she’s forced to fight them off with a kitchen knife.
This incident raises a question: Is the Chinese government in collusion with representatives of the underworld? The movie doesn’t address that issue directly, but it does make the point that the government employs not just plainclothes officers but freelance thugs to violently harass Ye. After a while, she is stripped of her home. She isn’t allowed to rent an apartment or even a hotel room, and the film presents us with a powerfully sad photograph of Ye embracing her 13-year-old daughter, the two of them sitting on a road with all their possessions: a dozen boxes and a refrigerator-freezer. The only place that she can go is back to her parents’ rural home, and there, as a divorced single mother in China, she faces the stigma of “gossip” and further ostracization. But at least she has a roof over her head.
Nanfu Wang had been living outside of China for two years when she returned to make this film, and there are points when she herself comes under suspicion. Much of her filming is done surreptitiously, with a micro-camera hidden inside a pair of glasses, and at certain points the movie generates the high tension of a thriller, as when an official suddenly looks at Wang and says, there’s something odd about your glasses. He winds up taking them off and destroying them (though he never did find the camera).
We know, from the simple fact that we’re sitting and watching “Hooligan Sparrow,” that Wang successfully smuggled the footage she shot out of China. She tells us as much (though she doesn’t reveal how she did it), and watching the movie, you feel grateful to be in the presence of a rippling chain of heroism, one that extends from Ye to Wang to the other protesters in the film (several of whom, an end title reveals, are now in detention), all the way to Ai Weiwei. At the end, the film cuts to Ai’s 2014 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, and one of the installations there is so simple in its audacity that it may stir you to tears: It is all of Ye Hainan’s possessions, the ones that were sitting on that road, arranged exactly as they were in that photograph. “Hooligan Sparrow” is a literal and moving testament to how political protest works: It may start off looking “small,” but it becomes powerful and large when it is seen.