‘High Tech, Low Life’: A Short Review and Extended Thoughts
In a previous post, we highlighted some interviews with Sydney Film Festival guests you can download the podcasts for. One of the films I watched was ‘High Tech, Low Life’ and it has been mulling around in my mind since then so below is the transcript of the quick review I did for Arts Friday and then some further thoughts that I had about the film.
The on-air review (transcript) (Arts Friday, June 8th 2012)
One of the Sydney Film Festival screenings of ‘High Tech, Low Life’ was last night and the documentary was received extremely well by the audience.
The story is ultimately a dual character portrait and both Zola and Tiger Temple are very interesting characters whose quirks and passions are revealed on camera as contrasts to each other in editing that moves unobtrusively between the two stories. Zola is young, quite vain, fun loving, sometimes inappropriate and hungry for fame, which the Internet has managed to provide him, taking him from the rural province of Henan to thousands of clicks a day and invitations to overseas blogging conferences. Tiger Temple’s inner stillness shows his restless search for stories and advocacy of the downtrodden is fuelled by something else – a lifelong commitment to thinking independently perhaps, despite being a part of that generation of Chinese who were unable to go to university due to the Cultural Revolution and despite the ways in which varying degrees of government interest and interference are to be expected when you advocate for transparency in a country notoriously cagey about information. Both men though, are completely committed to finding and personally engaging in the stories that they write.
That’s not to say that this is just a simple film about the contrasts between the younger blogger and the older blogger, nor about Western Internet freedom versus the Great Firewall of China and nor even down to its form is “High Tech, Low Life” either all just a study of these two men who happen to blog or all about the politics of information and freedom in China at its heart. The situation is more complex than that and the film tries to highlight that by taking an observational approach that does not try to overtly push a political message in order to explore those nuances.
The stories that Tiger Temple and Zola tell on their blogs and that Steve Maing tells in documenting the storytellers themselves, reveals the gap in a rapidly developing society that the poor, marginalised and those who find themselves on the wrong end of power fall through. So thinking about the political implications of their acts is inevitable in a way because the elevation of personal stories into the public arena in an environment that does not care much whether they are told is a political act that will eventually run up against the state, whether that is intended or not.
“High Tech, Low Life” traces Zola and Tiger Temple as they negotiate this narrow and murky line, occasionally running into trouble, more often than not making connections with the people they talk to along the way. The two bloggers are charismatic and the cinematography is often stunning, particularly the parts shot in rural China. I highly recommend catching this if you get a chance to.
Other Thoughts/A Conversational Review
This segment of the post is not quite a review, but some other thoughts connected to ‘High Tech, Low Life’ that might range into some other thoughts, if that makes sense.
Sidestepping Good vs Evil Narratives
There are a couple of things that were inevitable about ‘High Tech, Low Life’: people will be interested in China and will read into its politics. The ingredients for grand narratives are there: the David vs Goliath story of the humble blogger against the oppressive state and the contrast between the economic rise of China and the restriction of free speech etc but this documentary has circumvented these clichés and revealed other more compelling narratives.
Before entering the world of ‘High Tech, Low Life’, it might be useful to imagine the documentary that might have been made instead. This one would not have been a character study but a “China doco”; relentlessly Western in perspective, full of judgement and condemnation ultimately building the portrait of the PRC as monster and one which uses the people who appear solely to make an overarching point about oppression in China. These documentaries have their place, particularly when bringing little known stories to light or providing depth on an issue that regular journalism might not be able to provide. When the subject matter arouses as much interest, scrutiny, anxiety and patriotism as China though, there needs to be something more than mere sensationalism in the conversation. To call something ‘evil’ or a monster is a way of dismissing it as an anomaly that holds the possibility of being completely excised, whilst ignoring the surrounding context that gives rise to it, and also denying it the possibility for reform.
‘High Tech, Low Life’ is a documentary that takes the nuanced approach, keeping its scope relatively small through its exclusive focus on Zola and Tiger Temple, with the occasional splash of text giving some context as to China’s antagonism towards some Internet users. The four-year timeframe over which the footage was shot gives us a shifting portrait of their lives that encompasses both relative freedom in their activities and intimidation from the authorities. In this way we are able to obtain an intimate glimpse into the reality of what it means to be a blogger or citizen reporter in China and gain a new avenue through which to think about what the actual issues may be.
The Personal is Political
So the Great Firewall of China, like its brick namesake, is not impossible to bypass, most Chinese citizens do not face the extraordinary measures set up to detain activists such as those Chen Guangcheng faced before he escaped, not every thought is policed and there is scope for freedom of speech to find life. Zola and Tiger Temple understand there is a kind of vague line between what is safe and not safe and it is fascinating to witness how they negotiate it. Part of their tactics in staying on the right side of that line include resisting the label of being ‘citizen reporters’ and avoiding any specific agenda by simply going around the country and documenting what they bump into along the way (although Zola does sniff out leads). Tiger Temple even writes from the perspective of his cat, Mongolia, thinking that the state would not censor a cat (they did not). Disorganisation and being uprooted through constant movement is a form of protection.
This is not always enough though and the line can move at any time catching you on the wrong side without you ever knowing why. The purely oppressive state that polices and bans all dissenting thought is shown to be more of a fictional bogeyman in ‘High Tech Low Life’ but what the documentary also helps reveal is the many layers of state authority it is possibly to get caught up in. Tiger Temple sets up a row of books and objects from largest to smallest, ending in a cigarette packet to represent the central ruling committee through to the local authorities and police. He makes the comment that those on the lower layers are afraid of those on the top. When you are a blogger in China writing about issues that might embarrass any level of that structure, you are likely to find yourself under scrutiny, most likely from the lower down levels. Zola has a travel ban placed on him and then lifted without knowing why and Tiger Temple is escorted from his Beijing home during the Olympics. It is evident that these people, ostensibly writing about whatever interests them without a specific agenda except to tell the truth as they see it, are being monitored in some way.
If we imagine that the central goal set by those at the top levels of authority is for stability and economic progress, and couple this with the fear of those who occupy the lower levels of state authority (a fear of losing one’s job, of being criticised and reprimanded for doing a bad job for example), it is not hard to see why local authorities often seemingly overreact to the threat posed by people like Zola and Tiger Temple who are essentially just documenting what they see and hear. The imperative for stability, best shown on a national public level through the relentless good news of the state controlled media, filters down in a way that turns any alternative viewpoints into a problem for the local authorities for not getting across/controlling the central message well enough. Since everyone is supposed to be optimistic and satisfied at the continuing progress of China, anyone who sees differently must be a troublemaker to a lesser or greater extent, and because there is most likely no clear policy as to how people simply blogging their thoughts should be dealt with, the action taken against them can range from nothing to every kind of intimidation possible to shut them up. This unknowability and this labyrinth of bureaucracies with murky chains of command is the real nightmare: that anyone might find themselves suddenly thrown into a Kafka-esque relationship with the state for utterly banal reasons. At times it simply feels like pettiness.
The way that Zola and Tiger Temple insist on documenting their own perceptions on their blogs is inevitably political in this environment, but the two bloggers remain persistent and optimistic about their work, which really sweeps you up into their journey. The success of ‘High Tech, Low Life’ I think is in raising a multitude of issues and thoughts whilst never stepping away from the realness and humanness of this story of two ordinary men, doing something millions around the world do everyday, but in a complicated place.
Zola and Tiger Temple’s personalities act as nice foils to each other throughout ‘High Tech, Low Life’. Zola’s almost bratty individualism, vanity and youthful energy, coupled with him coming from a remote rural area with not much to do apart from sell vegetables, leads him to seeking fame on the Internet. He often puts himself at the centre of stories, including tastelessly posing in front of a dead girl’s coffin for a photo. He claims that he just wants to have fun but when Tiger Temple and Zola finally meet in person at a blogging conference, the older man points out that he is a ‘playful warrior’, fighting against the powerlessness and complacency that grips many people in China.
Tiger Temple as the older divorcee who avoids the limelight fits a more traditional idea of the quiet, stoic hero, alone in the alienating city of Beijing and occasionally taking off on his bicycle for thousands of kilometres just to see life elsewhere and what other people might benefit from the help he can give. He makes a comment in the film that now that he has been divorced for nineteen years and his child is grown up, he has more time to help people. This reminds me of the kind of expansive love that Nick Keys recently presented a lecture on as part of this radio program; a kind of love for his fellow citizens that compels him to spend a moment in their lives and really get to know them, beyond just the details of their plight. The homeless people in Beijing that he helps raise money to get some accommodation for share a communal meal with him in one scene that is heart warming but also speaks to the power in his actions. His blog connected their lives with his readers who were then moved to donate money and probably also moment of personal investment in their story. A gesture of kindness can reverberate and amplify like this, without the interference of a government or a plan or the mediation and spin of the press, and do some work towards making an alienating society less so.
The way that Stephen Maing has told his story about these storytellers sidesteps the clichés and allows the audience to spend time in the lives of Tiger Temple and Zola, which is really quite a lovely time indeed. In terms of technique, the camera is observational, but never clinical or distant and the images can be very beautiful but do not stray into indulgence. I have often thought that in extraordinary places, metaphors and symbols have a tendency to take on a physical form and it is these that are often captured in ‘High Tech, Low Life: a blogging conference takes place amongst ancient rocks long immortalised in watercolour paintings; a building has a belly that a train can slice through; a man who writes is a threat to the highly protected presences of the ruling party and must be physically removed from the vicinity.
I always enjoy and admire films that can induce a mood of thoughtfulness and ‘High Tech, Low Life’ was, evidently, one of those. It is heartening to see that there are young filmmakers out there producing this kind of work and I look forward to seeing more of it.