Award-Winning Guerilla Documentary Highlights Officials’ Rape of Children in China

Ye Haiyan holds a protest sign in the film “Hooligan Sparrow,” which is also her nickname as a women's rights activist. (Courtesy Hooligan Sparrow)

LOS ANGELES—Filmmaker Nanfu Wang, based in New York City, filmed her first feature documentary in China on a trip to visit a provocative women’s rights activist nicknamed “Hooligan Sparrow.” She said that during that summer trip she was deeply shocked by the events she witnessed in her home country.

“All I wanted to do at the moment was I wanted to document it,” she said. “I wanted to show the world. I wanted people to see it.”

The film is named after “Hooligan Sparrow,” whose real name is Ye Haiyan. In the film, Ye leads a group of activists and lawyers in protest of the rape of six girls aged 11 to 14 in Hainan Province, where they were taken to a hotel by their principal and a government official. The girls were missing for nearly 24 hours and were paid the equivalent of US$2,000 after the incident.

Wang interviewed parents of the children in the film, who explained to her exactly what happened. But when lawyers sought to represent the parents, they refused, saying they were warned by officials not to go to court.

Powerful sexual offenders in China often avoid lengthy jail sentences by arguing that they paid the victims money and were merely involved in child prostitution, explained Wang. “Sparrow” and other activists wanted to draw attention to this case to help people understand that such actions should clearly constitute sexual abuse and rape.

At the protest, human rights lawyer Wang Yu handed out copies of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which China is bound to follow, to families in front of the Wanning No. 2 Elementary School. The CRC is the most ratified of all UN treaties and is considered the most complete guide for the protection of children under the age of 18.

During a protest in front of Wanning No.2 Elementary School in Hainan Province, lawyer Wang Yu is shown handing out the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Courtesy Hooligan Sparrow)

The CRC states, “Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse.”

Ye and others involved in the protest, including Wang, are soon harassed and interrogated. Ye is arrested and evicted from her home, although she is a single mother with a daughter. Lawyer Wang Yu is eventually detained and charged with subverting the government.

Meanwhile, Wang’s cameras are destroyed, yet she is able to keep shooting with secret recording devices, preserving enough footage to smuggle out of the country for her film.

During the entire process, Wang discovers a frightening number of plainclothes security officials on the streets of China, practically indistinguishable from ordinary citizens. Her fear grows, for this is a part of the country she had not been aware of before, even though she lived there for more than 20 years.

“I was really scared and I had nightmares almost every night,” said Wang. “What we witnessed was something that the government didn’t want people to see.”

The result is a picture of how far the communist regime of China is willing to go to silence any information, any truth that might awaken the widespread mistrust of the general public and threaten the absolute rule of the one-party system. It also highlights the problem of corruption that seems to be integrated into the very fabric of the entire system.

But most importantly, the film demonstrates the desperate need to solve a very basic fundamental challenge for the Chinese people.

“The biggest problem is there is very limited information in China,” said Wang. “The narrative that people often got was from the state TV and newspaper, and there’s very rarely any counter-narrative.”

Wang said she showed human rights lawyer Wang Yu a rough cut of her film. The lawyer said to her, “I’m really glad that you documented everything. But this is just one case. And if you follow me, as I go to defend other cases, every case is just as dramatic, just as severe as this one, and things like this are happening in China anywhere and any time.”

Wang hopes that her film, and other such independent films, can help the Chinese people become aware of what their country’s leaders seek to hide from them.

“Hooligan Sparrow” received support from organizations such as the Sundance Institute and the Independent Filmmaker Project, and it was an official selection at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, as well as numerous others.

Among its awards are the grand jury and best director prize for documentaries at the 32nd annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in April. The documentary film made its Los Angeles theatrical debut on July 29 and will premiere on PBS October 17.

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