Activism in China is no picnic.
What begins as a protest against the rape of children quickly devolves into a witch hunt for Chinese women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan (or Hooligan Sparrow) and her daughter Yaxin by the entire Chinese government. The original case that starts the snafu centers on a middle school principal who took six students with him and a labor official to a hotel, spending a night in which the girls were raped. In America, there is no way the men would get off easy- but in China, there’s a loophole for government officials. Through the child prostitution law, a reduced sentence will be offered as opposed to the sentence for rape- which is almost invariably the death penalty. Hearing of this, famous activist Ye Haiyan leaps into action. As she’s filmed by newbie Nanfu Wang, her resolution and passion is reminiscent of America’s 60s feminists. Only she fights for human rights at a fundamental level, like legalizing sex work so the workers don’t get abused, or making sure girls won’t get raped and that if they do, the perpetrator never sees the light of day again.
It is appalling to see the Chinese government’s reaction to activism. Detainment is a norm. When the credits roll, we see the members of Haiyan’s band and their detainments- some of which continue to this day. Through Wang’s audio recorder and camera, a picture is painted of corruption and coercion. As Ye Haiyan gets detained, then chased from apartment to apartment as she’s either beaten in her own home or evicted with her daughter and all belongings onto the highway, it seems less and less like a modern day documentary and more like some sort of haphazard spy thriller. Moments of poignance poke through when Haiyan is able to discuss her work, or when Yaxin talks about her mother.
Unfortunately, the documentary becomes tripped up in itself with perhaps too much of the same old stasis, the same evictions, even a short sequence when Ye Haiyan returns to her village, only to cautiously reveal that they know nothing of her life as an activist. Getting hunted by the government isn’t all chases down the street and assault, although there’s plenty of that. Even moments of dullness are pierced with an underlying theme of fear. Huddled up in a friend’s apartment, filmmaker Nanfu Wang and Haiyan’s daughter Yaxin whisper about how they can’t sleep. Though more than halfway through the doc, it sets the mood- determined, but slowly eroding in hope. Such is the life of an activist in China, and as Ye Haiyan reminds us with a sign on the beach:
In China, women’s rights are dead.
Thankfully, there are activists working to bring them back to life.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be presented June 10-19 with 18 topical and provocative feature films and three special interactive programs that grapple with the challenges of defending human rights around the world today. Now in its 27th edition, the festival is co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center. Schedule and ticket info: ff.hrw.org/new-york