What happens to a documentary maker when they find themselves so caught up in the world they’re filming that they become participants as well as observers? Two directors at the Take One Action! film festival – Nanfu Wang and Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami – explain how they made the leap from filmmaker to activist
Nanfu Wang’s debut film follows women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan (aka Hooligan Sparrow) as she campaigns to expose Chinese government officials who are getting away with sexual abuse. To finish the film she had to evade security services and smuggle her footage out of the country.
“Ye Haiyan is a social media celebrity in China, with a huge following on Twitter. When I read that she had volunteered to work in a brothel and offer free sex to migrant workers, in order to expose their living conditions, I was amazed.
I had always been interested in sex workers’ rights, because I was from a village and I knew some women who didn’t have access to education and eventually ended up becoming sex workers in the city. I was thinking of making a film, and I thought Ye Haiyan would be the perfect person to introduce me to that world because it would be hard for me to get access. So I contacted her.
When I returned to China it took me several days to get hold of her. She was very secretive. Sometimes she wouldn’t answer the phone or tell me where she was. The day I met her I learned that she and other activists were going to a protest in Hainan Province. Six young girls, aged between 11 and 14, had disappeared, and then were found two days later in a hotel room, unconscious. They said they’d been taken there by the school principal and another government official, who sexually abused them. The hospital also told the parents the girls had been abused. Then the media started turning the story in another direction, saying the girls had received money, blaming the parents for not teaching the kids that they shouldn’t get gifts from the principal. There was a national discussion about what’s wrong with teenagers.
I immediately sensed that the story had changed, so I volunteered to go and film the protest. I was astonished at how many similar cases had happened just that month – about 13 or 14 cases all over the country where kids were raped or sexually abused by teachers or government officials and a lot of them were charged with prostitution, not rape, so only had to pay a very small fine instead of going to prison.
About a week after the protest, my family called and said national security agents had contacted them, asking them what I was doing and where I was. I was shocked. My family live in a remote village and have nothing to do with politics. I asked the activists and they said this kind of surveillance happens all the time. What happened after that was even more surprising – how fast the agents could act and how massive the surveillance was. I only moved to the US in 2011 and I thought I knew a lot about China, but after making this film I feel like I don’t know my country at all.
I always say I’m not an activist, I’m a filmmaker. But the turning point was when I was editing the film. It was July last year and news came in that lawyer Wang Yu, one of the activists, had been arrested and charged with subverting the government, which could give her anywhere between 15 years and life in jail. What happened to her was outrageous – both her and her husband were arrested. I remember that night thinking that I just wanted to put the film out, I don’t care where it premieres, I want to do whatever I can to help her get her freedom. I started questioning myself. What is the definition of activism? If an activist is someone who can’t stay passive anymore after witnessing what they have witnessed then yes, I am an activist.”
Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s new film, Sonita, is about an Afghan refugee in Iran who wants to be a famous rapper. Drawn into the story, the director ended up helping Sonita to travel to the US to escape forced marriage.
“We have three million Afghans living in Iran but there’s segregation so I didn’t know about their lives and problems, but I have a cousin who is a social worker and asked me to visit Sonita. She knew I had musician friends and thought maybe I could introduce her to somebody for music training. Sonita was quite shy and distant but I found a friend who volunteered to teach her some guitar, so I was meeting her more, and little by little I became interested in making a movie about her.
I didn’t know I was going to make a movie about forced marriage; I was more focused on the life of immigrants, and teenagers. Sonita was interesting because she had a lot of dreams and hopes and it didn’t seem to me that any of them would happen. She wanted to be a rapper and solo singing is forbidden for women in Iran. But she was very decisive and ambitious and kept dreaming.
My theory is that because she was not really raised with her parents, and was left alone in Iran with her sister, she had more freedom and could think for herself. Other girls are very controlled by their families but she was kind of a rebel because her mum was not with her. And Iranian women are much more independent, more educated. So she was inspired by the way her teachers were living.
I think Sonita was somehow sure somebody would help her, especially if the cameras were recording. My sound person believed the mum made up the story about selling her to a husband back in Afghanistan to make some money – “they see the crew is filming her so they want you to pay”. But on the other hand I was thinking that if something happens I will really feel guilty. So there were a lot of challenges.
Even now some people think I shouldn’t have interfered. There are TV stations that won’t buy this movie because of it. They wanted a movie with an Afghan forced marriage at the end. They wanted me to shoot Sonita crying. But if I was in this situation again I would do the same. I think it’s a better movie, a more hopeful movie, than just showing something horrible, and many others agree – the film has won many awards including two at the Sundance Film Festival.
I don’t think that I’m an activist; I try to tell a story. But then every movie is political. If you make a film in Iran about nature, not showing anything about the country, that is also political.”
Take One Action! Film Festival is in Edinburgh and Glasgow from Wednesday to 25 September. Hooligan Sparrow, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 17 September and CCA, Glasgow, 18 September. Sonita, CCA, Glasgow, 23 September, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 24 September. www.takeoneaction.org.uk