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Hooligan Sparrow’ Director Nanfu Wang Went from Government Intimidation to Oscar Shortlist

In this still from "Hooligan Sparrow," Chinese activist Ye Haiyan holds a sign that reads "China's women's rights are dead." Courtesy of Nanfu Wang

Nanfu Wang didn’t end up making the film she had in mind when she visited China in 2013 to discuss sex workers with an activist.

But that turned out to be a good thing because the documentary she ended up making, “Hooligan Sparrow,” is one of 15 titles currently shortlisted for an Oscar for Best Documentary.

The film follows women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan, known by her pen name Hooligan Sparrow, as she protests injustice and as a consequence is harassed by the government.

As Wang documents Ye’s life, she becomes part of the film’s story when she is also targeted with intimidation tactics. Interrogated by government security agents and stalked by secret police, Wang keeps recording, using hand-held cameras, an audio recorder hidden in her dress, and even a micro camera embedded in a pair of eyeglasses. Carrying her footage on her at all times, she figures out a way to smuggle it out of the country in order to make the film.

Although she felt afraid, Wang said she was inspired by the resolve of the activists, who live under constant threat.

“I am a storyteller and had the ability to document and tell the story,” the 31-year-old told NBC News. “I was there. And if I didn’t do it, nobody would know it happened. And that was scary. That fear was greater than the fear of personal safety.”

Wang had originally intended to make a film about sex workers in China. She reached out to Ye — who had previously campaigned for the rights of sex workers — about getting in touch with some. Ye asked her to meet in China to discuss the project, but a few days before Wang arrived in May 2013, a sexual assault scandal broke in Hainan province. A school principal and government official were accused of raping six girls, aged 11 to 14. The principal and government official were later convicted, according to China's state-owned Xinhua News Agency. As Ye started organizing a protest, Wang began filming.

Adept at provoking attention, Ye holds up a sign at the protest in the film that reads, “Hey principal: get a room with me and leave the kids alone!”

Her message goes viral on social media. The following day, Ye is arrested and detained for days. Even after her release, Ye is harassed, suddenly evicted from her apartment, and followed by government agents from city to city as she tries to find a place to live with her teenage daughter. Throughout the resulting documentary, Ye remains unflappable.

Like Ye, Wang grew up in a rural farming village in China. In 2011, she came to the United States for a media studies program at Ohio University. There, she discovered documentaries.

“When I saw them I realized that this is something I wanted to do,” Wang said. “It matches every aspect of my interests and passion.”

Wang then attended New York University to study documentary. She has not returned to China since the filming, unsure of her safety, she said. She added that national security agents recently visited her family in the country.

In addition, Wang Yu (no relation to the filmmaker), a civil rights attorney who appears in the film, was arrested in July 2015. Although the Chinese government said it released her on bail in August 2016, Nanfu Wang said she has not been seen and the attorney’s family has been unable to contact her.

“We believe she’s still held secretly,” Wang said.

“Hooligan Sparrow” is Wang’s first feature film and premiered at Sundance last January. The Academy Awards shortlist of 15 was culled from 145 documentaries that were submitted for consideration. The final five nominees are scheduled to be announced on Jan. 24.

With the shortlist honor, Wang hopes to gain a larger audience.

“I hope that the film will be seen widely, both by people who know — and don’t know — China,” she said. “I felt that I knew China so well. I am Chinese. I lived my life there. I knew very little. So I hope the film can show people what’s going on there.”

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