Ye Haiyan in "Hooligan Sparrow"

Nanfu Wang was immediately intrigued when she first read of Ye Haiyan, an activist who volunteered to become a sex worker to expose the poor conditions faced by women who are often forced in China to take up that line of work and to protect them from disease. Yet Wang quickly got past the sensationalized story to find a deeper connection with the woman, better known throughout the country as “Sparrow,” discovering that the two had both grown up in impoverished farming villages where social mobility was all but snuffed out by a lack of proper education. Still, she had no idea that after meeting the fearless, brazen activist that she would come to know what it was actually like to be her, constantly under threat from the Chinese secret police while making “Hooligan Sparrow,” an urgent and infuriating profile of Haiyan and her efforts to bring attention to the rape of six young schoolgirls who were offered up by a principal to government officials as a bribe.

The crime is incomprehensible, but almost equally so is the reaction to Haiyan speaking up in the girls’ defense as they are accused of being prostitutes to indemnify the principal and she is personally threatened by hecklers outside her apartment thought to be paid by the government and ultimately detained in prison. However, armed with a Canon 60D DSLR camera, Wang would seem to be wielding the most dangerous weapon of all, bearing witness to her home country’s suppression of free speech through ever-increasingly aggressive means. Although this leads to plenty of shots in “Hooligan Sparrow” where one can only hear authorities scolding the first-time filmmaker and/or Haiyan as the lens is tilted sideways or towards the ground, it’s extraordinary that such content is captured at all, something even Wang seems to marvel at throughout the film as she reviews her footage to discover all the people watching her and the desire of people to get their hands on her footage.

The result is a portrait that’s every bit as daring as its subject, a film that shows the bravery of those fighting for human rights in China against seemingly impossible odds and offers an all-too-rare look at the often neglected subject of the personal price of activism for those who dedicate their life to a cause, allowing little time for much else. While Wang was in Park City on the eve of “Hooligan Sparrow”’s premiere, she spoke about how she decided to focus on Haiyan, the challenge of getting the footage out of China and why she became a filmmaker.

You’ve said this started out as part of a larger project about sex workers in China. How did the focus shift to Ye Haiyan as a person?

Before I went back to China, I was interested in the sex worker story and I knew that Sparrow was one of the most prominent sex workers’ rights advocates, so I thought she probably can get me to meet some sex workers, which otherwise would be hard for me to get access to and [earn their] trust. I contacted Sparrow and asked if she could introduce me to them and we hadn’t met [in person], but she said, “Okay, you can come back to China and we can talk further.”

When I went back to China, I found out that she wasn’t in the city where she was based and where she funded a sex workers’ rights organization. She told me she was in the middle of a protest that had nothing to do with sex workers and I had to choose to either go to film sex workers and find access myself, or follow her. She told me about the protest [regarding] this very controversial [case] about the rape of six girls, which I knew because it was breaking news in China at the time, and I wanted to find out what happened, so I decided to follow Sparrow.

Was interesting to come back to China after being in America to study?

Yeah, but I wasn’t away that long. I came to the US in 2011, so I was only here two-and-a-half years by the time I went back to China and the change in China wasn’t surprising to me. What surprised me was I spent over 20 years in China growing up there, but didn’t know anything about activism or politics. I never met an activist before. My life was different from theirs. Making this film was a learning experience for me [getting] to know the government and the activists’ life.

Was activism actually what actually got you into filmmaking or were you just interested in making movies?

I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up and I majored in English literature when I was in China. By the time I graduated from graduate school in Literature, I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t want to study journalism in China [because] I probably wouldn’t be able to do the kind of journalism I wanted to do, so I decided to come to the U.S. to study. After a year in the U.S., I figured long-form documentary would be the perfect media for me to tell stories in China. That’s how I got into filmmaking.

Did you ever expect to include as much of yourself in the film as you wound up doing?

Not at all. [laughs] I would never wanted to be on camera and when I came back with footage, it just became clear to me that I am part of the story. What happened to my family, my friends and to myself — it became natural that I had to be in the film to show the scale of the government crackdown and how far they would go to silence everybody who wanted to tell this story. For a long time, I couldn’t accept my own voice to be in the film. Every time I recorded a voiceover, I hated it and thought I don’t want to be in the film, but it is part of the story.

During the opening scene, you mention how you actually had to rewatch it to figure out what was happening and how you were being watched. Was reviewing the footage a constant part of making this?

Yes, a lot actually became clear to me when I was editing. I didn’t realize I had the footage of the [father of one of the young girls until later], for example. I didn’t recognize that one person would follow us from one location to another. There was too much going on. Even a few days ago when I was watching the final director’s cut, it’s like, “Oh my god — that guy,” or something. Every time I notice something that I didn’t notice before.

You film the Hainan Protest that Sparrow stages near the beginning of the film and you quickly realize that just openly carrying the camera around in public is going to be dangerous. At that point did you rethink how you would film this?

Yeah, exactly. Before we went to the protest, activists told me you cannot bring your tripod because if you have a tripod, it is so obvious and people would know you’re either a journalist or filmmaker, and that would endanger all of us. The whole film was shot handheld because I made a decision not to bring a tripod with me or even a suitcase, just a backpack with a change of clothes. When I went to visit Sparrow at detention center, it had become really, really difficult to film. Even the point-and-shoot camera was too noticeable.

So I started thinking, what can I do? I went to do research on hidden cameras and there are so many kinds — a button camera, a watch camera — and they are all difficult because it was summer. There was nowhere to hide it if I put it on. I considered a watch camera [where there’s] a micro-camera in the watch, but it was going to be a weird angle and you cannot pretend to look at your watch every few seconds. I ended up choosing glasses because I figured that would be the best angle and it wouldn’t be too obvious.

Was there anything you were present for that you would’ve wanted to get on film but weren’t able to because it was still too dangerous?

So much. When we went to visit at detention center or even on the street, we were followed by so many secret police and we were not allowed to film, even a cell phone camera. A lot of activists, especially men, would take out a cell phone and begin taking pictures as evidence that we were followed. Those secret police were quite aggressive. They would come forward and beat all those activists and grab their cell phones, and I wish so much that I could have that on camera because it shows you what kind of violence and aggression those activists are [up against] day to day. None of that is on camera. I got some audio [where] you can barely hear the activist yelling for help as they were beaten. Every day I went back to the apartment and was so sad because I couldn’t get that and if I didn’t get it on camera, nobody would know it. A lot of Chinese people don’t believe that. They don’t believe that somebody is dragged. When we were on the streets when I was surrounded, those ordinary people passed by and they didn’t know what is going on. Without evidence, they wouldn’t believe what actually is happening.

It seems like after you could no longer film the protests directly, you found inventive ways to convey what happened, such as when the women gather at the beach with their signs. Was that something you had to put some thought into?

Actually, they were giving a second protest in that scene at the beach. They didn’t want to do it early on in front of the school, but they wanted more people to learn about it, so they decided to go to the beach because of the tourism there. There were a lot of people there and they started showing the signs and I thought it would be nice to film that, but really their message was [amplified] because of the power of social media. [Not filming the initial protest] wasn’t a problem for me because their post of the protest got re-posted thousands of times. The government would delete it, but [every time] it was deleted, there would be new social media posts coming out, so the government actually couldn’t catch up.

Was it a challenge to get your footage out of China?

Yeah, because I tried to ship the footage a few times and I found out that I was followed to the shipping office. One time, I actually already signed the [shipping] form and handed the [hard] drive to the shipping officer and then when I came out, I realized all that time I was followed. I was so afraid that they would hijack the footage from the [hard] drive, I ran back and I said, “I’m sorry/ I’m not going to ship it. Can I have it back?” That was Chinese shipping services. Another time, I went to FedEx [because] I thought it would be safer and the FedEx officer told me all the media files would be inspected at customs when it lists China and “We don’t have the responsibility if anything happens, so you think through that, whether you still want to ship it or not.” I decided I’m not shipping it. Eventually, I had three different friends take the drive with them to the U.S. at three different times.

Wow. Because this is an ongoing situation, when did you realize that it was the right time to stop filming and to finish this particular film?

I didn’t have a choice because by the end of the summer it became difficult for me to even stay in China and film. I knew that the national security agents were looking for me everywhere and I just couldn’t film anymore. I had to get out of the country. It wasn’t like I said to myself I have enough footage. It was like, “I have to finish. I have to get out. If not, I’m afraid something bad is going to happen.”

“Hooligan Sparrow” will open on July 22 in New York at the Cinema Village and July 29 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall.