CINEMA SPOTLIGHT: HIGH TECH LOW LIFE
HIGH TECH LOW LIFE is a documentary exploring the state of censorship of netizen bloggers in China. Unlike AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, it explores the journey of two juxtaposed, underground journalists – Zhou Shu Guang (Zola) and Zhang Shi He (Tiger Temple). Through the use of the Internet and social media, both developed a loyal following–and a will to nurture the next generation of storytellers.
HIGH TECH LOW LIFE opens tomorrow, for a week, from January 9-15, 2013 at The IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10014. Purchase your tickets here.
CineVue: How did you choose Zhou Shu Guang – ZOLA and Zhang Shi He – TIGER TEMPLE as subjects of the film?
Stephen Maing: I had originally started filming with just Zola who comes from the “80’s generation” as they call it – people born in the 1980’s who are known to be more forward thinking and individualistic. Much of Zola’s personal conflict seemed to be about defying anything paternalistic or collectivist that got in the way of him achieving what he wanted in life, whether that was his parents, the government, or his elders. He often fittingly says he is first interested in helping himself and defending his right to free speech, and if he can help others along the way, that’s good too.
I started to feel early on that a second character was needed to broaden the film’s context. The addition of an older character to the film was a perfect way to suggest the generational tensions and also show that there were other bloggers like Tiger writing online about similar issues of personal freedom but through a very different and complex lens of history. I like to think of the film as being about one character looking forward, and one looking back – both trying to navigate a shared struggle in the present.
CV: Tiger Temple doesn’t consider himself a citizens reporter, just a reporter; and Zola considers himself as a blogger and not a journalist. Can you describe the difference between these distinctions?
SM: Tiger Temple has spoken about the affinity for news reporting he had starting at a very early age. But, because of China’s state-monitored restrictions on journalists and news reporting, he opted in his thirties and forties to pursue fiction and novel writing. The emergence of personal blogs in the early 2000’s enabled him to finally “realize his calling in life” and report, write and discuss critical news and social issues stories.
Zola and Tiger actually consider themselves to be bloggers as well as citizens reporters. However, a point they both make is that because of the licensing requirements imposed on official journalists and the stigma associated with journalism in China, it is more convenient to understate their titles as simply bloggers. In Tiger’s words “I am an ordinary citizen recording my surroundings. Once you start saying you’re a citizen reporter, they will start passing laws and say you can’t report anymore.”
CV: In the film, there is a constant back and forth between what Zola and Tiger Temple are reporting and what mainstream journalists are reporting/not reporting. What is the state of censorship in China? And how did social media change the landscape of freedom of speech?
SM: Censorship in China, as well as many other countries including the United States, is a reality. The severity may vary from country to country, but one can safely say that all governments and powerful corporations dislike too much transparency. In the case of China, a modest amount of “bad” news stories may appear in state-monitored news reports in China, but never if it is critical of the central government or Chinese Communist Party. Additionally, anything deemed a threat to social stability is effectively censored from print, broadcast and official outlets.
What has been remarkable about the emergence of social media in China is that it has helped redefine the media landscape and social consciousness from a top-down heirarchal world to one built around networks where certain kinds of critical information can be disseminated with great speed and exposure. In a number of cases, corrupt local government officials have even been revealed and fired due to overwhelming online public disapproval. Social media driven protests after events like the Wuzhou high-speed train crash and thousands of other cases suggest that public opinion cannot always be controlled. Some esteemed bloggers and experts like Michael Anti suggest social media outlets like Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, are just another convenient tool for the central government to allow the venting of grievances against local government corruption. The question remains if the central government will ever allow the same vigorous debate to be directed at itself and the CCP the same way it allows certain kinds of online public dischord to root out local corrupt officials.
CV: HIGH TECH LOW LIFE alludes to the fact that housing or urban developments are taking over rural villages, whether for beautification reasons during the Beijing Olympics or waste disposal. How has this condition improved (or not) over the last four years?
SM: We encountered many housing and urban development projects while filming with Zola and Tiger Temple. In fact, they have both reported on displaced residents and eminent domain cases throughout China. Tiger Temple in particular has documented countless farmers and peasants he describes as “the former foundation of Mao Zedong’s worker’s revolution”, who years later expressed a feeling of abandonment by today’s Chinese Communist Party.
The success of economic reform of the last thirty years without a doubt has improved the living conditions for many millions of people, however Tiger and Zola’s reports reveal that large-scale economic development projects often come at a cost – at times, the property, well-being and rights of the poor and the powerless. And, it would be remiss to not regard this as a universal behavior of all governments and corporations, especially the United States.
CV: Rat 2 is one of the many “fans” of Zola. Do you think people like Zhou Shu Guang from a younger generation are taking a different perspective to highlight censorship and lack of democracy in China? And as a young filmmaker blogger born in the 1980s, is he considered a role model for the next generation of netizen bloggers?
SM: The day spent with Rat 2 was among my favorites during the filmming. As a young college student, he had taken two buses to so he could meet Zola during a particularly tense time and “show his support.” Zola and Tiger Temple both believe one of the worst forms of censorship is self-censorship. Thus, one of Zola’s ideas is that by doing provocative things online, he can provoke people into caring about important social issues and events, and encourage them to debate about their political beliefs more often. For this reason Zola has many fans and to his great pleasure, a number of passionate detractors online so the question of him being a “role model to others” would probably be met with equal praise and criticism.
One of my favorite things about Zola is his very honest way of embracing his motivations for fame, fortune and before gettng married, “meeting pretty girls.” He challenges the expectations that those who help others should be altruistic and selfless. But it can’t be denied that for many, he represents a new brave new vision for the future of engaged, politically active citizenship.
CV: When did you begin to find interest in Chinese bloggers? Did you try to and why didn’t you finally pursue the famous bloggers like writer Han Han and the other writers, for example those who are “accredited” as “celebrity dissident/public intellectual” to post on bullogger http://www.bullogger.com/ (it must have come across in your research)?
SM: In 2007, I read an article in the New York Times about an eminent domain case in the city of Chongqing. The article noted that “Chinese bloggers were the first to spread the news.” I was curious who these unnamed Chinese bloggers were and a quick web search led to a young man named Zola who had reported on the story after China’s state-run media abruptly stopped its coverage. It captured my imagination to learn that he had taken the savings from his vegetable selling business to travel to the neighboring province and see how he could help out.
During the first few years of filming we considered documenting a wide variety of influential, well-known and lesser-known Chinese bloggers including Isaac Mao, Michael Anti, Hu Yong, Han Han, Ran Yunfei, Beifeng, Muzi Mei, Lian Yue, Liu Di and many others. Ultimately, the most intriguing criteria for me was the fact that Zola and Tiger Temple came from very humble backgrounds, and travelled a lot, working both online and offline. On a narrative and visual level, the idea of their frequent travels seemed to offer lots of possibilities for a possible film.
It was also compelling to me that Zola and Tiger where not high profile political dissidents or well-known celebrities but to some degree more average Chinese bloggers making extraordinary efforts to help resolve problems – doing so carefully and cleverly. I very much wanted to avoid making a film about bloggers that would be imprisoned or worse so it was important to me that Tiger Temple and Zola shared a similar desire to understand how they could promote freer speech in China without getting themselves in trouble.
CV: Zola and Tiger Temple represent two generations and two upbringings, even though they may have difficulties understanding each other. Did you struggle to understand their backgrounds and the way they think or do things? What’s your approach to getting the stories out of them and getting a hold of the nuances of their behavior?
SM: I think on some level, they understand each other quite well, perhaps even see themselves in each other. For myself, the early days of filmming were of course challenging logistically and culturally. However, it never felt like too much of a struggle to understand them as people becase they were so vocal about their thoughts, intentions and motivations. Additionally, the best advantage I probably had in the field, other than looking Asian, was simply time. This idea of longitudinal observation is probably the most important distinction between long-form docs and any other medium. With no set timeline or editorial requirements to finish the film, I was able to spend long stretches of time filming Zola and Tiger. You of course become friends with people when they trust you to film them – and with friendship comes an eagerness to share one’s personal story.
CV: The sequence of Zola and the portrait of him as a “tech geek in garage” seems to blur the stylistic distinction between fiction film and documentary. Was it a deliberate artistic decision? What was the inspiration?
SM: This was something he has done many times in his training sessions for other people, so we simply asked him to show us some of the gear he uses for reporting. The garage is actually where he was working at the time – a space that he had hoped to turn into a recreation center and café. That plan never hatched so it became.
CV: And finally, are you working on any upcoming projects?
SM: I’m working on a few possible projects at the moment but much of my efforts are also focused on getting this film out into the world. The hard part feels like getting a film made, but no one ever tells you how much work it is to actually get it seen when it’s finished!
Stephen Maing is a New York based filmmaker. He is a fellow of the Sundance Documentary Institute and a grant recipient of the MacArthur Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, and the Independent Television Service. His filmmaking merges an interest in underrepresented individuals and communities, and the evolving considerations of identity, visual language and narrative structure. His recent film High Tech, Low Life won Best Documentary awards at the Independent Film Festival of Boston and the Little Rock Film Festival. Stephen works as a director, cinematographer and editor on documentary and narrative films and teaches summer classes in documentary cinematography at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.