Sundance started last night, and had its first full day of activities today. My first event was a movie in the World Documentary category titled Hooligan Sparrow. The original interest for filmmaker Nanfu Wang was to follow activist Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow) who had been making a name for herself with her advocacy work for the rights of sex workers. Ye Haiyan had a small group of activists working with her, and their efforts had gained the attention of the Chinese government, along with the international community.
Nanfu Wang, who no longer lives in China, travelled to Hainan Province to document Ye Haiyan’s latest protest of some young girls (as young as 11 years old) who were sexually abused by their principal.
This is where the story takes a turn. Early in to the experience, Wang realizes that perhaps the real story concerns the risks that human rights activists endure. Wang, along with Hooligan Sparrow and her group, becomes a target of intimidation and threats. In some cases, it’s clear the threat is from the government. In other cases, it’s unknown if it’s the everyday man sympathetic to the government or perhaps recruited by government officials.
The story is well-crafted, haunting, and educational about the changes that have been made in China, and those left to be made. Strikingly, Hooligan Sparrow is Nanfu Wang’s feature-film debut. It was a great way for me to start the festival.
In the afternoon, I headed to the ASCAP Music Cafe, relaxed and enjoyed some live music. My favorite act of the afternoon was Air Traffic Controller, an indie pop band fronted by Dave Munro, a real-life air traffic controller for the US Navy. There were six people on the stage, but they played like a twelve-piece band, each member deftly moving from one instrument to the next, often within the same song. Listening was great, but watching was even better.
In the evening, I saw another documentary. This time it was NUTS!, a documentary by filmmaker Penny Lane entered in the US Documentary Competition. What a departure from the earlier film. The film tells the story of Dr. J.R. Brinkley, a small-town doctor with an entrepreneurial spirit who starts performing goat gonad transplants to solve impotency problems. Sounds like a guy you should have heard of, right? He lived in Kansas in the early 20th century, and in addition to his medical prowess, he also starts a successful radio station among other pursuits. I won’t give away the twists and turns in the tale – just know there are some.
Much of the story was told through animation, which was certainly unexpected. Some of the animated re-enactments are taken directly from available transcripts, but some were fabricated. This all adds up to a blurring of the line between truth and fiction, which ultimately is a bit of a parallel of Brinkley’s life.