The Politics of Looking: A Critical Exploration of Hooligan Sparrow

The Politics of Looking: A Critical Exploration of Hooligan Sparrow

Nanfu Wang has just made her first feature length film, “Hooligan Sparrow”. “Hooligan Sparrow” is one of Sundance Film Festival’s 2016 official selections and has won awards at film festivals around the world, including Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, L.A. Asian Pacific Festival and Human Rights Watch Film Festival. However, none of this would have been possible if Wang hadn’t successfully smuggled her film out of China in friend’s suitcases. I offer up my own critical analysis of the film by by putting it in conversation with the work of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere

When I spoke to Wang she defined “Hooligan Sparrow” as a film about how Chinese state oppression impacts human rights activists and their friends and families. “Hooligan Sparrow” shows this oppression taking the form of police brutality, surveillance and censorship. These themes are unwinded through the stories of several people with different relationships to activism.  The perspectives of these stories vary greatly from (in)famous women’s rights activist, Ye Haiyan, internationally known as “Hooligan Sparrow” and (in)famous for her unique style of activism which is reminiscent of performance art, Haiyan’s daughter, human rights lawyer Wang Yu, who was just awarded the Ludovic Trarieux rights prize, and Nanfu Wang herself.

When you’re repressed and defenseless, the only thing you can do is to document the atrocities.

Wang, who currently lives in the U.S., returned to China in order to shoot a film about Haiyan’s work with sex workers. However, when she arrived Haiyan was in Hainan organizing a protest against a principal and school official accused of sexually abusing six students. While Haiyan is able to return to her home in Guangxi, this protest sets a chain of events in motion which essentially amount to a campaign of terror launched against Haiyan and those associated with her by the Chinese government.

Throughout the film, Wang felt it was her responsibility to record what is happening to those around her and goes to great lengths to do this, even when the state begins monitoring her, contacting her family, friends and observing her communications and travel.  

At the same time, Haiyan is illegally detained under false charges, evicted from several apartments and, eventually, she is kidnapped with  her daughter and abandoned by the side of the road with all of their belongings by state authorities. During these struggles, Chinese activists take to social media to show their support, and once hearing about Haiyan’s struggles, some even travel to her home in Guangxi to offer their help, despite never having met her in person.


I find it ironic that if Wang’s supposed crime was that she dared to look too closely at the Chinese state that her punishment was to have her every move monitored even more closely. The act of looking can be seen as an act of defiance or an act of oppression depending on who does the looking.

This is what Wang had to say about her experiences:

Do you feel like your identity as a filmmaker changed throughout the process of making “Hooligan Sparrow”?

Nanfu Wang: Yes. At the beginning, my intention was to be an observer. I didn’t plan to put myself in the film. But gradually, my mere presence as an observer made me a target for some of the same harassment and intimidation my subject was facing. Eventually, even my friends became targets. I no longer was an observer; my experience of trying to follow the activists – running with them, hiding with them, facing angry mobs with them – the experience of merely trying to document the situation and subsequently becoming a target of state repression forced my identity as an observer to change.


One of the parts of the film that has stayed with me since watching it, is when you inspire one of the activists you met to start filming and recording as well. How do you think this type of activity can be used as a means of protest?

N.W.: I was touched by what he said to me: “When you’re repressed and defenseless, the only thing you can do is to document the atrocities.” That was how I felt most of the time. Filming was the only way that I could fight against what I was witnessing. As long as the witnesses to China’s human rights crackdown are willing to document and share their experiences, the evidence they gather exists as a counterweight to the state’s claims that human rights advocates are criminals threatening China’s stability.

Recent advances in technology have made it possible for people to document and circulate information faster and easier than ever. Also, because of the lack of rule of law, a lot of citizens have learned to use pictures and videos to protect themselves. The government finds it much more difficult to circulate false information when faced with such a breadth of documentary evidence from citizen journalists.

Do you think witnessing through watching films like yours can also be a means of protest? Is this common in China today through social media and sharing?

N.W.: Of course. I think social media has really changed the way activism works. A person with no connection to an activist network or even a news network can take a picture or video of something, post it to social media, and in an instant, the moment they’ve captured is accessible to the entire world. Even the Chinese government, whose mechanisms for controlling the flow of information are very effective, often can’t keep up with the pace of social media.

Who did you hope the audience of this film would be? How does it make you feel knowing there are obstacles that make it difficult to screen the film in China?

N.W.: I always knew that it would be hard to show the film in China, and the only way the film could have some exposure in China would be if it received enough attention internationally. This way there would be at least some chance of Chinese people hearing about the story.

That said, no matter how well-known the film becomes outside of China, it will never be screened in an ordinary Chinese theater or on Chinese TV, as both are tightly controlled and censored by the state. There is, however, a thriving underground cinema following in China, and my hope is that the film will reach people in that way.

The documentary intertwines several narratives, yours, Hooligan Sparrow, her daughter and lawyer Wang Yu’s, woven together to create a story that was anchored in the daily lives of ordinary people. Did you choose this type of technique before making or did it emerge as you were putting the film together?

N.W.: I didn’t choose it consciously but I wanted to recreate the experience I had as truthfully as possible for the audience. I wanted the audience to feel that they were there experiencing the events as I did. It’s important to have different narratives because the story is not about one person; it’s about how everyone who was associated with human rights activism was affected. This included friends, spouses, and even children of activists.

When I was filming in China, I had the idea to shape the narrative like the film Roshoman, in that every participant would separately recount their version of the story. I did the interviews with them at the end when the filming was almost done, then I asked each one for their account of the experiences we all shared.

It allowed me to shape the narrative in a way that each person’s voice and mind could be heard and understood.

Do you have any advice for other filmmakers wanting to undertake similar projects?

N.W.: Don’t worry too much. Go ahead and do it.


Usually when we talk about resistance to oppression, the image that springs to mind is of attending protests, taking to the streets or leading legal battles, but “Hooligan Sparrow” shows  that while these means are effective, resistance can take multiple forms.

One way to look at politics is as a struggle by an unrepresented group for representation in a society’s established order. Visual representation plays a huge part in the battleground of politics becausethe battle takes place over the image of society – what it is permissible to say or to show”.  

French philosopher Jacques Ranciere would say that in order for something to be considered normal, and therefore, a possible course of action for ordinary citizens it has to already be shown in images accepted by society’s dominant culture or normative order (1). This could explain why societies like China employ so much censorship, by blocking images (and other mediums like books, films, etc.) They stop their contents entering into their society’s idea of what is normal and are able to maintain their current status quo.

This can be seen as a form of societal control as this ensures that no real social change can occur.

For a full mindmap behind this article with articles, videos, and documents see #hooligansparrow

Ranciere defines political art as art which attempts to expand upon the range of possible actions by showing the unpresented. This disrupts the normative order by beginning a process of normalization for behaviour that was not previously condoned (2).

In “Hooligan Sparrow” we see Wang do this by showing us the lives of human rights activists in China as normal people with families, apartments and feelings rather than the criminals the Chinese government paints them as. Showing them in this way creates international solidarity abroad and a body of counter-evidence to false information spread by the Chinese government.

Hopefully, this can encourage other Chinese citizens to speak up about their human rights.

The traditional means of protest can only work if the protester possesses certain privileges, if they can find a network of peers, if they can organize themselves, if they have the time, and if it is safe to align with their cause in public. That is not to say that documenting is a medium accessible to all – it also relies on being able to afford a camera, have internet access or another means of distribution  and, as we see in “Hooligan Sparrow”, it has considerable risks.

The most accessible way for many is to share their political art on social media. Sharing things online, perhaps anonymously, can be used to find and communicate with others who have shared similar experiences or to create awareness. This is a growing trend in China, for example, recently Chinese feminists have been sharing pictures of themselves in solidarity with the Stanford assault victim. And just last year, Chinese feminist Li Tingting used social media after illegal detainment  following a peaceful demonstration.

The interesting thing about political art is that it depends on being shared.

As Wang notes, the only way her film can have any impact in China will be if it attracts international attention. The success of her project depends on viewers tweeting, talking and reading about her film.

One could argue that any film’s success depends upon these factors, even a Hollywood blockbuster will only be considered a success if people pay to go and see it at a cinema. However, I argue that this is something different. The Hollywood blockbuster would still be a success if many people went to see it but never talked about it again. Wang’s project would not. In order to normalize human rights activism in China, to a Chinese audience it will depend on the film being able to open up a narrative.


This style of resistance opens up possibilities to us as spectators, it forces us to be engaged as active spectators.

Typically, spectatorship is viewed as passive. Ranciere suggests that it is seen as a negative activity because it is viewed as the opposite of both knowing and acting. It is looking without understanding because otherwise one would not merely be a spectator but engaged in an activity such as analyzing, engaging with or critiquing.  However, political art gives the viewer the opportunity to be an active spectator.

By watching “Hooligan Sparrow” we are taking part in something.

While looking at the state may be what made the state look at Nanfu Wang and Ye Haiyan and many, many others, looking can also be seen as the tool that Wang is offering to us to combat surveillance and censorship.

Further Reading : 

  1. Rancière, J. (2004). The politics of aesthetics. London: Continuum.
  2. Rancière, J. and Elliott, G. (2009). The emancipated spectator. London: Verso.

Recommended reading: “HOOLIGAN-SPARROW

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Featured Photo Credit: Nanfu Wang
EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

Interview with Nanfu Wang

About the Author /

Rebecca studied for her BA in French Studies at The University of London Institute in Paris, before moving to London in order to study for an MA in Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London. She is a contributor to Hysteria, Good Sister Bad Sister and Books Ireland. Her research interests are cultural modes of resistance, feminism and she has a deep love for the works of Jacques Rancière.


  • Claude Forthomme

    July 1, 2016

    A thoughtful piece that takes us along a ride in Rancière’s fiendishly complex view of the world, fascinating! Yes, “looking” (as here, viewing a documentary) can be interpreted as a “prise de position”, as political participation. And that’s a good thing we shouldn’t be afraid of doing.

    I’m reminded of the form protest took in an earlier pre-Internet time in the Soviet Union, before the fall of the Berlin wall: Samizdat. That was the xeroxing of an ms by a writer contesting the Communist order in order to secretly pass it along and share with like-minded friends (e.g. Solgenytsin’s work spread that way before he escaped to the West). With modern technology, a documentary like this one is far more sophisticated and more “flashy” (read: visual and striking) than the poor, worn sheets of a Samizdat novel. But unless it is seen where it needs to be seen (in this case, China) I wonder whether it is as politically effective as Samizdat was (and that was really quite effective: it did contribute to the fall of the Berlin wall!)

    I note Nanfu Wang hopes that by drawing attention to her documentary in the West, it will reverberate back to China. I hope she’s right, and certainly we should do all we can to help her attain her objective, through sharing and talking about this.

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