Women Documentarians Reveal Injustice and Hope at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

By Nora Lee Mandel

I used to think of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival as “The Depressing Festival” in coverage over the past nine years.  But the programmers more and more balance artistic merit with the sponsoring NGO Human Rights Watch’s exposés of terrible injustices around the world, and even, sometimes, give the audience hope.  In this 27th year in New York City, they also broke barriers behind the cameras — 10 out of the 18 films in the program were directed or co-directed by women, many times with the intimacy from establishing a close relationship with the subjects, many in attendance at the Festival.  Not only did these documentaries sensitively spotlight a wide range of women’s issues in Afghanistan, China, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Mexico, and Mississippi, but women filmmakers were showcased gaining revealing access to difficult, diverse places — a maximum security prison and the Amazon rainforest.  

In New York City June 10-19, the film festival has expanded over the years, co-presenting uptown with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and downtown at the IFC Center, accompanied by related exhibitions and post-screening discussions on the issues with the filmmakers, HRW staff, and other experts.  Versions of the festival also travel: this year to Amsterdam and San Diego in January; its 20th anniversary in London in March; Toronto in April; Los Angeles and Miami in May; Chicago and Sydney in June; and selections shown in over a dozen other cities.  Many of these films continue to make the festival rounds elsewhere, as well in theaters.

Many of these very different films compellingly emphasize the power of government to use the legal system to stifle individual rights.  Thankfully, this year the Human Rights Watch Festival includes women directors providing some hope, with examples of individuals or communities taking action, even if any success is mixed or sui generis.


Each year, the festival bestows the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking (named for the late Oscar-winning cinematographer/director/festival founder) in honor of breaking new ground in daring images and ultra-committed personal involvement.  Recipient debut director Nanfu Wang is a consummate example of that ideal.

Wang returned to her native China from her New York base to document the life of activist Ye Haiyan, known on Chinese social media as “Hooligan Sparrow”.  She first gained notoriety by posting offers of free sex, which was her aggressive mode of drawing attention to the conditions of sex workers at brothels and their client migrant workers.  While in the west we mostly hear about protests by the elite, such as artists (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry shared the same executive producer by Andy Cohen) and lawyers (the Sparrow is defended by Wang Yu, one of the two female human rights lawyers in the country), Haiyan is determined to help voiceless people who, like her, came to cities from poor rural areas and find no recourse for egregious bureaucratic behavior.  

Wang was thrust into the Sparrow’s latest campaign as soon they made contact – to get charges brought against local government officials who transported school girls for sex.  Bringing together the distraught families, she organized taunting demonstrations to shame the specifically identified miscreants.  Over the course of following her guerrilla-like protests as they try to stay ahead of the police, Wang’s surreptitious filming picks up repeating suspicious faces (as pointed out in her voice-over narration).  While some are state security spies who attack Wang’s equipment (she quickly learns to protect and hide her raw digital footage to be smuggled out of the country), others turn out to be potential whistleblowers cautiously checking out if this Hooligan Sparrow can really be trusted with their evidence.  

Like a heart-pounding thriller set in a paranoid conspiracy, Wang runs with her as noxious goons get the Sparrow, her boyfriend, and her teenage daughter evicted from apartment after apartment.  Yet even homeless on the side of the road with all her possessions, the Sparrow still manages to meet up with the aggrieved and strategize with other activists in the Women’s Rights Center she founded, who protect her resilient teen daughter during her frequent incarcerations.  When the government further hounds and restricts her movements, she is forced back to her home village, where her bewildered farmer parents’ nagging expectations of dutiful marriage and traditional behavior provoke bad memories and frustrations that, ironically, get her even more revved up to take on the powers that be.  She inspires Wang to be even more determined to get her story out to the world.  After this New York premiere, Hooligan Sparrow will be in theaters in NYC and Los Angeles on July 22, then begins showing on PBS’s POV on October 17.

Seek out these exciting women-directed selections from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival as they travel to different cities, open in theaters, VOD, or broadcast on PBS or other channels over the year.

© Nora Lee Mandel 07/20/16

Top Photo: Ye Haiyan, “Hooligan Sparrow.”

Photo Credit: The Film Collaborative.



About Nora

Nora Lee Mandel [] is a member of New York Film Critics Online and Alliance of Women Film Journalists; her reviews are counted in Rotten Tomatoes’ TomatoMeter [].  She reviews films and television in Film Festival Traveler, Film-Forward, Lilith, and NH Jewish Film Festival’s Film Buzz.  Her ongoing Critical Guide to Jewish Women in Movies and TV [] has been the basis for talks to audiences in New York and New Jersey, and Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.  @NLM_MavensNest

Tags: FF2 Media, Film Festival, Hooligan Sparrow, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Nanfu Wang, Nora Lee Mandel, Ye Haiyan

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Brigid Presecky began her career in journalism at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In 2008, she joined FF2 Media as a part-time film critic and multimedia editor. Receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Bradley University, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked in development, production and publicity for Berlanti Productions, Entertainment Tonight and Warner Bros. Studios, respectively. Returning to her journalistic roots in Chicago, she is now a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and certified Rotten Tomatoes Film Critic.
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