The 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival kicked off last year with Nanfu Wang’s alarming debut feature documentary, Hooligan Sparrow, for which she won the annual Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. On April 5, it will have a special screening and Q&A at BAM in honor of its latest accolade, the George Polk Documentary Film Award, an annual presentation from LIU. The film is a brave, disquieting look at Chinese activist Ye Haiyan, better known as Hooligan Sparrow, an advocate for sex workers’ rights, as she leads protests against a school principal who sexually abused six elementary school girls. “If you film us, we’ll smash your camera,” a man tells Wang at the beginning. Later she’s told she will be beaten if she doesn’t hand over her equipment. But she’s determined to keep telling the story any way she can. Sparrow, who gained notoriety for a project in which she offered free sex to migrant workers, is joined by Shan Lihua, Tang Jitian, Jia Lingmin, Wang Yu, and lawyer Wang Jianfen as she battles law enforcement, the government, and brothel owners, her safety and freedom in constant jeopardy. “If I believe something is right and I’m obliged to do it, they can’t stop me by arresting me or even killing me,” she defiantly says. She and her daughter, Lan Yaxin, keep getting evicted from their homes and banned from numerous provinces, but that doesn’t prevent her from protesting with such signs as “All China’s Women’s Federation Is a Farce. China’s Women’s Rights Are Dead” and “You Can Kill Me, But You Can’t Kill the Truth.” Born and raised in a remote Chinese farming village and currently based in New York City, Wang, who directed, produced, photographed, and edited Hooligan Sparrow, never backs down even as she meets with Chinese officials and is followed everywhere she goes, forced to become suspicious of nearly everyone she encounters. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22. Wang clearly has reason to be paranoid.
The film is executive produced by Andy Cohen and Alison Klayman, who collaborated on the award-winning documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry; the Chinese artist and activist, who had been under long-term house arrest, took up Hooligan’s cause, and he included her belongings in an installation in his 2014 Brooklyn Museum retrospective, “According to What?” Wang, who has three master’s degrees, cowrote the film with Mark Monroe, who wrote the Oscar-nominated documentary The Cove and numerous Sundance winners. Hooligan Sparrow also features a subtly ominous score by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero that helps keep you on the edge of your seat as Hooligan and her group continue to fight the power, despite each of them being detained and imprisoned at one point or another — and some still are. Hooligan Sparrow is being shown April 5 at 7:30 at BAM, followed by a Q&A with the Brooklyn-based Wang and Polk Awards screening committee co-chair Richard Pearce. “Hooligan Sparrow is a remarkable and courageous work,” Polk Awards curator John Darnton said in a statement. “In filming it, in the face of intimidation by undercover security thugs, Ms. Wang herself turns into a dissident. She begins somewhat nervously, even timidly, and then becomes emboldened before our very eyes, employing wily devices like hidden-camera glasses and secret audio to get the documentation she needs.” The Polk Awards are named for CBS correspondent George Polk, who was brutally murdered while covering the Greek civil war in 1948; last year’s George Polk Documentary Film Award went to Matthew Heineman’s Oscar-nominated Cartel Land.