Hooligan Sparrow (2016)

Director: Nanfu Wang

Six elementary school aged girls were taken by their school principal to a hotel where he and a government official sexually abused them. These events took place in Hainan province of China. The police got involved, someone was punished, someone’s life was ruined. It’s not who you think…

Ye Haiyan is a controversial figure in China. She is an activist who dares to act out against Chinese customs and behavioral codes. She defies the country’s morality and is a woman who uses her body and voice in a way that many of her fellow denizens find troubling, infuriating, and even repulsive. Years ago she chose to shed light upon the violence and high risk lifestyle the underground prostitutes face in a country that vilifies and persecutes them. Haiyan, who goes by the nickname of Hooligan Sparrow, decided to prostitute herself for free as a means to begin a national conversation. This definitely got a reaction and was extensively covered in media both domestic and international.

Then the even in Hainan occurred, and Hooligan found her newest cause. She was aware of a legal loophole that allowed government officials to circumvent persecution or at the very least the full extent of punishment if the violated girls are paid, even if against their will. Hooligan decided that after this particularly heinous crime, she would not let it once again be swept under the rug, and so she and some of her fellow activists decided that they would not allow to have this crime ignored or forgotten.

So who does the public, government, and police go after? If you said Hooligan Sparrow, then you’d be correct and you have an idea of the type of documentary this is. The film follows Hooligan as she has weird, violent, and terrifying experiences with the police force, local governments, secret police, her neighbors, and the Chinese population and media. This is an example of someone standing up for what is right in a country where doing just that is interpreted as being in the wrong. The anger one feels while viewing this film is compounded by the absolute backwardness of a worldview that punishes a woman for speaking out against horrific crimes, while in the same breath ignoring the violence perpetrated against child victims at the hands of grown predators who benefit from this environment. In the western world we complain a lot about a rape culture that permeates society, and these criticisms are important, because when one is brought face to face with the terrifying extremes of the issue, we realize what we are truly fighting against and what happens when silence and ignorance are allowed to rule.

Anchoring the story is also Hooligan’s beautiful relationship with her precocious and brilliant daughter. We understand what and who this woman is fighting for, and why she simply cannot let go. This central relationship is the beating heart of the documentary, which is not directed all that greatly and is in the hands of someone who lucked into the footage rather than a capable documentaries. That said, luckily or not, the story is important and worthwhile, even if quite hard to stomach at times. So if you still have space for indignation in this troubling 2016, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, go to Netflix and give Hooligan Sparrow a shot. It’s a story worth paying attention to, because if we don’t listen, who will? And who will stand up for what is right? Hooligan cannot do it alone!

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