Thursday, April 7, 2016

CIFF: 'Hooligan Sparrow' exposes corruption in China

Activist Hooligan Sparrow protests sex crimes in China.
Photo courtesy Hooligan Sparrow
Ye Haiyan aka Hooligan Sparrow posted pictures of herself online offering free sex to migrant workers as a way to get into a brothel and expose the injustices she witnessed. This fearless activist is the centerpiece of a jarring film by the same name that follows Sparrow as she fights for justice for six students sold to an elementary school principal and raped as part of a government favor. In China, a man who rapes a young girl can get a life sentence, but if money was exchanged, the sentence is more lenient. 

Sparrow and her band of activists are constantly blocked by the Chinese government — getting arrested, evicted from her apartment and having her things dumped roadside. As more roadblocks pop up, another dark presence emerges. Plain-clothed government officials appear in several of young filmmaker Nanfu Wang’s footage, leading her to realize every shot she captures is being monitored. She hides audio recorders and even wears glasses with a micro-camera to record whatever she can when filming in public is too dangerous. The tension boils over when spies threaten to beat up Wang, take away her camera and even murder her.

The confrontations make the viewer appreciate the courage of the young filmmaker to keep rolling even when threats loom and expose the oppression for all to see. Although the circumstances also mean viewers are watching overlong shots of the ground, shaky camera work during struggles and first-person explanations from the filmmaker as to how the footage was obtained. These extraneous elements could have been edited out for a smoother final cut.

Despite the constant pushback these brave women are met with, their determination to keep challenging the system is commendable. Some activists may still be jailed, but the group has one protest the Chinese government can’t stop: a lasting document of the atrocities in this daring film.

The Cleveland International Film Festival runs through April 10. For a complete listing of films, visit

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