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Safa al Ahmad, and Nanfu Wang. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Truth to power

Meet two women at the frontline of covert documentary making

By Lance Richardson on April 7, 2016

In the summer of 2013, the Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang began following a confrontational women’s rights activist named Ye Haiyan — or “Hooligan Sparrow,” as she is popularly known on Twitter — who had garnered considerable attention in China for bringing attention to the exploitation of sex workers, and for using nudity as a medium for protest in a country where any protest against the government runs the risk of prosecution.

“Protest is taboo in china,” Wang explained, in conversation with Deborah Roberts, a correspondent for ABC News, at the 7th Annual Women in the World New York Summit on Thursday. Wang and Roberts were joined by Safa al-Ahmad, a journalist and documentarian who has reported extensively in her home country of Saudi Arabia, where similar anti-protest rules prevail. “You’re not allowed to protest by law,” al-Ahmad said. “The government has a lot of leeway of what they consider to be the ramifications of a peaceful protest.”

Taken together, Wang and al-Ahmad represent filmmakers who are taking incredible risks to expose repressive government tactics that would otherwise go unreported.

Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. Sparrow in Nanfu Wang’s “Hooligan Sparrow”
Ye Haiyan, a.k.a. Sparrow in Nanfu Wang’s “Hooligan Sparrow”

When Wang set out to film Hooligan Sparrow, the activist was protesting an alleged sexual abuse of six school girls between the ages of 11 and 14 by their principal and a government official in Hainan Province — part of an epidemic of sex crimes in China, where underage children are labeled as “prostitutes” and shamed into silence. “At the time, the police, the government and the media were saying this was not rape,” Wang explained. “There [was] a law in China: As long as the rapist can prove they paid money or a gift, it would make it prostitution.” Hooligan Sparrow disagreed with this law (which has since been repealed). Since her outspoken protest cast disrepute on the government, though, she and her colleagues were marked as enemies of the state. Wang’s documentary, Hooligan Sparrow, details what happened next.

“When I started making the film, I felt like I was a very naive person,” Wang said. “The first day, the activists had to do testimonies on video, saying, ‘We’re going to the protest tomorrow. If anything happens — if we are found dead — it’s not an accident.’” In China, Wang continued, protesters are sometimes found dead and then described by the government as “suicides.” “When I said I wanted to go and film the protest, they asked me to do a similar testimony.” At first Wang thought this was “funny,” but over the next few months she changed her mind: “It was reality.”

Wang shot her film using inconspicuous cameras –– a Canon 60D DSLR, a point-and-shoot, and a micro-camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses. Nevertheless, she experienced harassment, interrogation, and tracking by uniformed and secret police, who also questioned her friends and family. This resulted in what Wang has previously described as a profound “sense of paranoia”— the grip of repression so successful in China that people police themselves into silence.

Documentarian Safa al Ahmad.
Documentarian Safa al Ahmad.

For al-Ahmad, it was overcoming silence in the international media that posed the first challenge to making her most recent film, Saudi Secret Uprising, which examines efforts by the minority Shia population in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province to petition their government for change. “A lot of people know about the so-called Arab Spring,” al-Ahmad said. But nobody in the media initially wanted to hear about a protest movement in Saudi Arabia because “it didn’t fit the cliche” circulated about that country.

Eventually, al-Ahmad was commissioned by the BBC, and used small cameras that fit into her handbag to record disaffected activists who are often labelled “terrorists” and then attacked, arrested, prosecuted, or even executed by the government. “I think discrimination is a better way to describe what’s going on in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

“The government still hasn’t figured out the best way to communicate with their people. They’re so used to having a one-way communication with them. They’re not used to the people wanting to have their own say as well in how the country is run.”

Both filmmakers brushed off the idea that they risked their lives to make their documentaries. But both have also paid a personal cost for their work: Wang has lost friends and family, and currently lives in exile in New York; al-Ahmad was accused by Saudi Arabia of disobeying her country’s laws, and informally advised not to return home. She currently lives in Istanbul.

“To me, what was important is that it starts a conversation inside Saudi Arabia,” al-Ahmad said defiantly, when asked about the impact of her film. Wang expressed something similar about Hooligan Sparrow. Since her film premiered in January at Sundance, Wang has been approached repeatedly by people around the world who see similarities between Chinese state surveillance and constrictions on freedom in their own lives. “They tell me it’s not unique in China,” she said. “For me, it gives me hope that people can start the conversation.”

Additional reporting contributed by Lisa Desai.


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