LOS ANGELES—Pursued by shadowy security men in plain clothes, New York filmmaker Nanfu Wang mounts the staircase of a decrepit, gloomy apartment block in China, gasping for breath as she reaches the upper floors.
The director has been under constant surveillance since she returned to the country of her birth to film the human rights campaigner known as Hooligan Sparrow, who has been highlighting sexual violence against children.
“Hurry! Hurry! I’m so scared,” Wang hisses as she ushers Sparrow’s teenage daughter into a safe house to escape the men who have just arrested the girl’s mother.
The gripping scene comes near the end of three months of jaw-dropping footage depicting China’s state security apparatus at work across the country’s vast southeast, which Wang shot and smuggled out in the summer of 2013.
Edited into “Hooligan Sparrow,” a feature-length documentary that comes across more as “found footage” thriller than political reportage, it is expected to shock audiences when it hits US theaters in July.
Followed wherever she went, questioned by secret police, threatened with violence and intimated by organized mobs, Wang captured every detail of her time as an “enemy of the state.”
She was forced to go on the run after security agents visited her family and friends demanding to know her whereabouts.
“I’ve never had illusions about fairness in China’s justice system or the accountability of its government,” the director told AFP.
“But I never expected to see ordinary people turn on their neighbors who were fighting for their rights.”
The filmmaker carried a discreet backpack with a small point-and-shoot camera, a pair of glasses with an embedded micro camera and a small audio recorder, taking all of her footage with her everywhere she went.
“I always was afraid that my footage would be seized and destroyed, or that it would be seen by the authorities and used against my subjects,” she said.
Wang—who grew up in a remote farming village in southeastern China and moved to the United States as an adult—decided to return when she heard of Sparrow, a divorcee and single mother whose real name is Ye Haiyan.