Hooligan Sparrow

Bertha Journalism


Nanfu Wang


Production support


Traveling across southern China during the summer of 2013, a cadre of seasoned activists led by Haiyan Ye (aka Sparrow) stage protests to call attention to the Hainan Case, a scandalous affair where a school principal took six 12-year old girls to a hotel for a night. Given the intense censorship in China, the audacity to protest this sexual abuse in public mark Sparrow and her colleagues as enemies of the State. Everywhere they turn the security apparatus is waiting for them. But detentions, interrogations, and forced evictions are no match against citizen media as news and pictures of Sparrow’s protest go viral.

"The film opens in Hainan Province as Sparrow and her colleagues demonstrate in front of the school. Sparrow was already known as one of the most famous advocates for sex workers in the country and her twitter messages shaming China over women’s rights are followed by tens of thousands of people. The local police did not stop the protest, likely to limit news coverage of the case. But as soon as she leaves Hainan, Sparrow is arrested and detained. Her lawyers work to release her while they also try to find the parents of the victimized girls who have been pressured by State security to remain silent. At each turn, the activists are followed and harassed by the police and seemingly ordinary citizens.

Filmmaker Nanfu Wang captures each confrontation with her camera, which reveals among other things, just how many undercover security agents are working the streets. Throughout the film there are scenes where security agents threaten Wang, interrogate her, and confiscate and break her cameras. Shooting with a close observational mode and adding a personal voice over, Wang narrates this human rights travelogue between the provinces of Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong and Hubei.

Sparrow’s eventual release spells more trouble as a hired mob demonstrates outside of her house. Balancing this struggle for rights and expression, there are also touching and humorous moments of everyday life where Sparrow is just trying to care for her 12-year-old daughter Yaxin thrown into this storm of activism. Her daughter gets a crash course in women’s human rights in China. As the activists travel to several locations, they are repeatedly arrested, evicted, and forced back on the road. At the end of the film, the lawyers eventually locate one of the fathers of the abused girls and travel back to Hainan to interview him in a powerful and heartbreaking testimony. Sparrow has nowhere to turn except to travel back to her home village, a place far removed from politics and activism. It’s a simple life, one she has not seen in years. "