Making a film about government corruption in China has to take guts, but what if you grew up poor in mainland China with zero filmmaking experience? What if the secret police began tailing your every move and national security officials harassed your family and friends? What if you had no idea how to use hidden cameras?
When Nanfu Wang made Hooligan Sparrow she had some serious odds stacked against her, but with the help of a pair of concealed-camera glasses, a microphone under her skirt and an immutable desire to document the truth, she created a film that made the Academy shortlist, and was given the Best Emerging Documentary Filmmaker award by the IDA.
It may not have aired in China, but Wang’s film following activist Ye Haiyan (‘Hooligan Sparrow’) as she protests the kidnap and rape of six school girls has received a great deal of notice in the rest of the world. As Wang says, “I feel really grateful that the story has so much response and exposure, especially in the current time in the US. It saddens me to see now the country that I lived in here is going through such difficult times as well and how relevant everything is–the right to protest, the right to information, the right to know. It’s very interesting.”
How did you decide to make this film?
It’s a long story. When I came to the US, I went to journalism school at Ohio University, but prior to that, when I was in China, I had not seen a documentary because I grew up in a small village in remote China and media was not accessible. In 2012 I decided this is what I’m going to do with my life. But at the time, I had never touched a camera and I didn’t know how to edit. I had no skills so I applied to New York University–a program called News and Documentary. I thought about going back to China to make a film and at the time, I was interested in many, many topics like the healthcare system. My father died when I was 12 and I wanted to expose the healthcare system in China because I felt like if we had a better system, he wouldn’t have died at such a young age—he was 33.
I also wanted to make films about the educational system in China because I didn’t go to high school or college in China. I started working when I was 16, so I fought really hard to get back to school.
Another topic that interested me was sex workers because, like I said, I grew up in a village and I had seen a lot of women from the village who didn’t have access to education and they end up becoming sex workers because they did not have skills, they did not have education and they were really discriminated against. So I wanted to make a film about the poorest sex workers in the country, but I also knew that it would be hard to get access to them. I’ve known Hooligan Sparrow–her name is Ye Haiyan–for a long time through social media, but I had never seen her in person at the time.
She was very proactive and she did a lot of radical activism by putting her own nude photos on the internet. And one thing that really attracted my attention was she did a free sex campaign where she went to brothels and offered sex for free to people to expose the living conditions of those sex workers and migrant workers who are usually their clients. The sex there was usually $2 per service so they are some of the poorest people. I thought she would be the perfect person to introduce me to the sex workers. I contacted her through e-mail and phone and she said, “Come back to China and we can talk.”
When I got to China, she was planning a protest. There was a breaking news story about six school girls, aged between 11 and 14, who were raped by their school principal and a government official, so she wanted to do the protest. I initially decided to follow her to the protest and it was then that I knew that the story wouldn’t be about sex workers anymore, but what turned out is much more complicated and a much bigger story than I initially planned to make.
Did you know you would become a target for government surveillance once you began making a film?
No. My life was not political when I lived in China so I knew very little about the activist world. I was aware of the corruption in China but I didn’t know the scale of the surveillance. When I got here to go to the protest with her, she warned me. She said, “It’s dangerous. You could be arrested and you could be disappeared. You could just be found dead.” I thought it was a joke. I didn’t believe her that much. I thought it was a little exaggerated but then a week after I went to the protest, my family got the phone call from national security agents and that’s when I realized they took it really seriously. Then, a few weeks later, my friends were taken into interrogation simply to be asked whether they know me and whether they know what I was doing and where I was. We were followed by plain clothes officers, secret police. Everywhere we went they knew our whereabouts and they knew that we were going there and they’d be waiting there for us.
You used a micro-camera in your glasses and we see you putting your audio recorder under your skirt. How did you decide what would work best?
I started doing research on what hidden cameras are available and I found a lot on the internet. There are hidden cameras in a watch shape or in pens or a button, but because it was summer it was really difficult to hide anything because we were wearing less clothes. I cannot put on a watch and then constantly raise up my arm and take a look at a watch. That’s not feasible. So later I thought maybe glasses, that would be the most perfect because it’s on eye level. So I bought a pair and I thought nobody would notice but I was pretty naïve because the glasses were huge and were black. No young girls would wear those kind of ridiculous, large glasses. So, you can see in the film that eventually the police did find out that the glasses were a hidden camera.
How has making this film changed how you feel about your home country?
It’s like the movie The Truman Show. I feel like towards the end of the movie, all of a sudden you realize that your whole life in the past had been lies. I realized that there were activists like Ye Haiyan in China who were constantly depicted by the state media as criminals, but they are real people like us and are fighting for other people’s rights. I never expected that there would be so many secret police on the streets and I never expected that the government would go so far to silence anybody who was remotely connected to human rights activism or even just a person like me, who is trying to tell their story.
There are some really terrifying moments where you’re clearly frightened but you continue filming. When were you the most scared?
I think every day I was pretty afraid. One of the biggest fears was I didn’t know when they would break into the house. I didn’t feel safe even when I was in somebody’s house because they could break in anytime and I was worried about my footage constantly. I think the activists, they inspired me a lot because I know that they’ve been living in China for their entire lives and their lives are constantly under threat, harassment and fear but they still continue doing what they do.
Compared to them, my experience was quite temporary really, and I knew that I had the ability to leave if I wanted to, more than them. So their courage really inspired me. At the same time, I feel like I was the storyteller. I had the connection to the outside world. I know English and I almost felt like I was the only person that could get this story out and if I don’t tell this story, if I quit, then whatever happened to them, nobody would know.
Do you think you’re able to travel back to China?
It’s still unknown whether I can go back. I wish there is a black list that I can check. Am I on the list or not? But unfortunately there isn’t, or fortunately there isn’t. So I don’t know if I can go back and the only way to find out would be try to go and see what would happen. At this moment, I feel like I still want to evaluate, kind of assess the risks or the consequences when I’m ready to go back.
My family were visited by national security agents recently because the film has been getting a lot of exposure outside of China, and my family was told that they were monitoring what I say in media and whether it’s something negative about China. I had a debate, because I was really concerned about my family, but I also feel that if I stay silent, if I don’t say anything, then their tactics are effective. Then it’s helping them to suppress people and the only way that the change might happen is actually to say what I witness and what I disagree with rather than stay silent.
Have you had a chance to speak with some of the people in the film since it came out?
I showed a rough cut of the film to all of the main subjects before I finished it and now, they’ve had a few underground screenings in China. The main subject, Hooligan Sparrow, saw it and she wrote a long article about the film but then the next day the government deleted it. The same happened with a few media outlets who were brave enough to write about the film. Soon it was deleted. So the film right now is censored in China. No media outlets were allowed to report it. One of the other main subjects, Wang Yu, the lawyer, she’s still in jail. She was arrested in July 2015 and she was held for a year without any charge and in February of this year she was finally charged with subverting the government.