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Review: Documentary tells story of Chinese women’s rights activist ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ by any means necessary

Activist Ye Haiyan holds sign that reads, "All China Women’s Federation is a farce. China’s women’s rights are dead. 1949-2013 Fallen," in the documentary "Hooligan Sparrow."
(The Film Collaborative)

Budding filmmakers can take away a valuable lesson from the documentary “Hooligan Sparrow”: You don’t need fancy camera equipment (or in some instances, even a camera) if you’re passionate enough about the story you want to tell.

Nanfu Wang’s urgent, compelling portrait of a group of Chinese women’s rights activists led by Ye Haiyan (nicknamed Hooligan Sparrow) is relayed by any means necessary, which happens to include cellphones, micro-cameras hidden in eyeglasses and digital voice recorders.

There’s good reason for the guerilla-style approach — when Ye and her tireless colleagues publicly protest the case of two government officials who received light sentences for sexually abusing six schoolgirls (because the victims were branded as child prostitutes for taking a bribe from their principal), they become the target of constant surveillance by secret police and harassed by angry mobs.

Not afforded the immunity of innocent bystander, the filmmaker herself becomes the subject of interrogation while her family and friends are threatened by secret police.

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But while the documentary serves as a grippingly effective first-person account, it finds its courage and tenacity in Hooligan Sparrow, a single mother who first achieved notoriety advocating for sex workers’ rights by offering herself as a prostitute -- free of charge.

Against considerable odds, Wang managed to smuggle the various media out of China and back to her New York base where she adroitly edited it into a quietly powerful first feature about the untapped potential for bearing witness in our social media-driven society.

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‘Hooligan Sparrow’

In English and Mandarin with English subtitles.

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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