We follow two of China’s first citizen reporters as they travel the country – chronicling underreported news and social issues stories. Armed with laptops, cell phones, and digital cameras they develop skills as independent one-man news stations while learning to navigate China’s evolving censorship regulations and avoiding the risk of political persecution.
|Running Time:||88/58 min.|
|Subject(s):||Asian Studies, Conflicts, Current Affairs, Ecology, Environment, Economy, Investigative Journalism, Law and Justice, Politics, Technology, Youth|
|Producer(s):||Stephen T. Maing, Trina Rodriguez, Richard Liang|
|Cinematographer:||Stephen T. Maing|
|Editor(s):||Stephen T. Maing, Jonathan Oppenheim|
When I started filming with Zola, a young Chinese blogger from Hunan Province, I initially thought the future film might become a sort of comedy because of his unique personality and sense of humor. After meeting the older Tiger Temple, I was most struck by their mutual curiosity about the world and willingness to take calculated risks to understand it. But how they did things was also very improvisational, following their interests and instincts wherever it led them, in some ways similar to how I followed my interest in them.
What they’re doing is a social art, at times even performative. It’s an art of engagement, adaptation, discovery and circumvention that attempts to challenge the status quo. Walking into new and difficult situations, embedding themselves with people and then finding creative ways to talk about things not being talked about – all without protraying themselves as political dissidents. I’m interested in character-driven stories that unfold slowly and unexpectedly. I felt it was important that any possible politics conveyed in the film emerge through the personal choices made by the two characters. I spent quite a bit of time filming both their reporting trips but also everyday routines. Over long periods of filming, deep connections between their personal struggles and public personas began to emerge and echo between the two characters and bind their very different generational outlooks.
My biggest concern was understanding the political landscape and making sure my presence would not create difficulties for Zola or Tiger if they reported on sensitive situations. We regularly discussed how best to navigate each trip we took together. I also consulted with other journalists and filmmakers in China throughout production. One memorable moment was when I asked Zola, “how low key should we keep things?” and he responded, “I already put some pictures online of you filming me!” For both Zola and Tiger, transparency was always crucial and openess would show they have nothing to hide.
A different kind of challenge was trying to figure out how to balance traditional documentary needs like context, social issues and story development while wanting the visual language of the film to capture more intangible qualities like the atmosphere of spaces, textures, character and mood. I wanted the film to have some sort of visual poetry that would help deliver different kinds of information and create a richer experience, but didn’t get in the way of Zola and Tiger Temple’s essential story.
ABOUT THE FILM
In 2007, I read an article in the New York Times about an eminent domain case in Chongqing Municipality. What caught my attention was how the article noted that “Chinese bloggers” were the first to spread the news. I was curious who these Chinese bloggers were and a quick web search led to a young man named Zola whose website featured the slogan, ‘You never know what you can do until you try,’ and picture of him buried up to his neck in sand at the beach, standing on the roof of a small building, and posing as Bruce Lee. I sent Zola an email and was pleasantly surprised by his invitation to meet which simply stated, “Welcome to China.”
So started a four-year adventure documenting Zola that took us from a small rural village in Hunan Province to the hustle of Beijing, and brought Zola from a youthful quest for fame to a more refined interest in web freedom and censorship circumvention techniques. Along the way I met Tiger Temple, an historian and scholar who put much of what I was seeing into broader relief and inspired me with his dedication to help the less fortunate gain public attention and legal assistance.
Over the years we have been truly moved by Zola and Tiger Temple’s stories and their efforts to understand their own lives while attempting to change the status quo for others. We have been allowed to witness the great personal sacrifice and potential risks that come with speaking truth to power from the perspective of two vastly different generations. And it is their belief in the work they do, as well as their commitment to this documentary, that fuel our desire to do their stories justice.
HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE
A DOCUMENTARY FILM BY STEPHEN MAING
HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE follows the journey of two of China’s first citizen reporters as they travel the country – chronicling underreported news and social issues stories. Armed with laptops, cell phones, and digital cameras they develop skills as independent one-man news stations while learning to navigate China’s evolving censorship regulations and avoiding the risk of political persecution.
In April 2007, 27-year-old vegetable seller Zhou Shuguang, aka ZOLA, hears about a family in a neighboring province resisting unlawful eviction by city developers. Moved and curious, he decides to close his vegetable stand and see things for himself. After posting reports on “the toughest nailhouse,” his blog receives thousands of hits and requests to report elsewhere. This overnight fame jumpstarts an unexpected career as a roving citizen reporter. Inspired by a search for truth and overnight fame, Zola begins to travel the country, giving his own comedic and provocative take on the news and challenging the boundaries of free speech in China.
Two thousand kilometers away in Beijing, 57-year-old Zhang Shihe, aka TIGER TEMPLE, is dubbed China’s first citizen reporter when he stumbles upon and impulsively documents the scene of a gruesome murder. After his photographs are censored from mainstream media, he is compelled to post them on his blog and commits himself to looking for other untold stories. With one eye on history and the other on the very current struggles of the lives he witnesses, Tiger Temple’s thoughtful use of language and historical reference is a marked contrast to Zola.
Strangers to each other, Zola and Tiger Temple share a common desire to offer those within and outside of China a rare glimpse at untold stories – and to stay out of trouble. China’s rapid economic and technological developments have created a vast new social space for a restless blogosphere to step up and fill information gaps left by the state-run media. In this space, citizen reporters can become online heroes and celebrities but they must also learn to walk the risky line between social commentary and perceived political dissidence.
HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE documents the inspired work of these two roving reporters and the achievements of a fearless new digital populace. From the perspective of vastly different generations, Zola and Tiger Temple must both reconcile an evolving sense of individualism, social responsibility and personal sacrifice. The juxtaposition of Zola’s coming-of-age journey from produce vendor to internet celebrity, and Tiger Temple’s commitment to understanding China’s tumultuous past provides an alternate portrait of China and of news-gathering in the 21st century. And at a time when social media is playing an increasingly vital role in social progress around the world, their work asks us to reconsider the value and meaning of journalism.