Inside the Terrifying, Absurd World of a Women’s Rights Activist in China

By Anelise Chen on June 8, 2016, for—
“In one of the funnier scenes in Nanfu Wang’s documentary Hooligan Sparrow, Chinese women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a. Hooligan Sparrow) is sprawled on her bed, entertaining questions from the endless stream of journalists who have shown up at her apartment. She has just been arrested protesting the non-conviction of a rape case in Hainan, but the inquisitors are more eager to know what she did at the Ten Yuan Brothel, where she offered free sex to draw attention to the dismal working conditions of sex workers in China. Sparrow seems tired and bored, but then a mischievous spark enters her eyes. She recalls a man asking her during the middle of sex,”‘Where are you from? Why are you so kind? Who sent you here?'” Then she laughs about it with her head thrown back. “I told him that Beijing sent me,” she deadpans, an unlikely scenario, to say the least, for the government-harried activist.

Aside from these brief moments of levity, the rest of the documentary is a grim foray into China’s political repression machine, a complex web of unchecked corruption, misguided patriotism, and pervasive propaganda. For her activism, Sparrow has been relentlessly pursued, intimidated, beaten, evicted, and detained. Wang followed Sparrow for one summer and documented the government’s terrifying yet oftentimes absurd efforts to suppress her: In one scene, a mysterious, angry mob suddenly appears at Sparrow’s apartment, rattling her front door like bogeys in a horror movie, and the 41-year-old’s only recourse is to defend herself and her daughter with a giant kitchen knife.”

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