Twenty-six year-old rural Chinese vegetable merchant “Zola” sees personal opportunity mixed with his unique journalistic integrity around virtually every corner of his home country, known as much for its “Great Firewall” as it is for its long-standing universally recognized landmark, The Great Wall. Fifty-seven year old “Tiger Temple”, the country’s first recognized “citizen journalist”, stresses the importance of respecting the past in order to understand the present, and is navigating the space between national hero and establishment criminal with the swift cunning of his feline namesake. The generationally conflicting, information- sharing ‘High Tech, Low Life’, a documentary as meditative as it is informative and infuriating, offers a portrait of a world ever more frequently connected, surveilled and censored, separated only through various degrees of authoritarian accountability and communication transparency.
Other strong documentations on the Chinese experience look at the country through the possibility of its multi- dimensionality. Films such as ‘Last Train Home’, ‘Dragon Girls’ and ‘Up the Yangtze’ offer full utilization of aesthetic diversity, while exposing relevant social injustice. In ‘High Tech, Low Life’, as terrain changes from lush bamboo forest to open fields, to abandoned metropolises, to toxic air- engulfed capitals, the country offers countless possibilities of maximum emotional and aesthetic impact. Images of a lone Zola traversing the lush greenery of rural provinces with an IPad and GoPro Camera represent a reality in which Tiger Temple’s advocacy of historical understanding cannot go unnoticed (or, if it does, it is at one’s own detriment).
Zola, (real name Zhou Shuguang), is a selfishly idealistic micro- blogger, with a trademark left- handed approach, portraying himself as a distinctly modern news anchor “selfie”. Zola has no choice but to draw from the position of the wireless millennial in a nation hell- bent on maintaining the abstract (and outdated) limitations of the physical boundary. Beginning with the unlawful eviction of their local “nailhouse” (citizens stubbornly resisting eviction like a nail stuck in wood) and quickly garnering national interest for issues ranging from toxic land development to political corruption and everything in between, Zola believes in a “get to it” approach to journalism. He attests that his readers desire nothing more than the time/ place/ characters/ cause/ development/ conclusion of a story. In Zola’s brand of 21st century rogue roving journalism, there is no time for the metaphysical origins of self cannibalising development or the bottom line based explanation of water pollution. Far gone are the days of Maoist traditionalism, now replaced by the exponentially rapid advancement of communicative abilities yielding interest, desire and need for the engagement of free communication.
The 57-year old “Tiger Temple”, (nee Zang Shihe), has a personality in stark contrast with Zola’s. A documentarian of public murder, Tiger Temple holds the dubious distinction of being known as China’s initial citizen journalist. A frightening prospect for many, the role is fully embraced by his “old- school” ideology of historical respect. Tiger Temple employs the guise of feline innocence in his roving documentations of the country’s injustices, understanding the absurdity, as well as the humor behind censorship. Natural disasters, rape, murder, homelessness and political cover- up represent Tiger Temple’s modus operandi, accepting mortality (whether by way of nature or otherwise) completely and unabashed.
Since 2004,and roughly coinciding with the rise of Web 2.0, China’s creation of The State Internet Information Office as a way to effectively monitor digital communication or, in their words, “political disobedience” within its borders, has become a lightning rod for criticism as well as for subsequent justification of government action. Much like the existence of USA’s National Security Administration, The State Internet Information Office has come under extreme scrutiny by public advocates, human rights organizations, as well as the popular consensus of the learned of the inherent humanist right to privacy and free speech. The State Internet Information Office is known as the “Great Firewall”. Within this organization, 40,000 police regulate digital correspondence inside the country, as well as provide a heightened scrutiny of exported communication. Over 500,000 of the world’s most widely used Internet sites are blocked by the “Great Firewall”, including the social networks and informational centers of Google, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter and IMDB (!).
As the decade progresses, it seems that the injustices of the elite increase, and the state of free journalism further moves towards subjectivity. Micro- blogging associated with seminal 21st century events like the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” movements encapsulates the NEED for non-partisan investigation in the emergence of what could be (if not already is) the world’s next superpower. With a Communist heritage and Capitalist selfishness, China’s enigmatic place among the world’s foremost human rights oppressors has made life extremely difficult for its “Netizens”, as well as for those they represent.
The inter-generational dynamic of the subjects provides the profound meaning of ‘High Tech, Low Life’. It is the self-centered (perhaps, bitter) approach of the new generation, material expectations and all, versus an approach drawn from wisdom and experience of age. The activists had never met prior to a 2011 blogging conference (as featured in the film’s climax). The 30 year age gap between them presents an interesting glimpse into the debate of tradition’s place in the age of hyper innovation, as well as into issues of self as opposed to the collective good. An interesting dynamic, especially within the context of a global materialistic influence seen throughout South East Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and, of course, the USA.
Director Stephen Maing’s film is a wide-angle meditation on a world in transition; that is to say, within the contexts of an individual society struggling to modernize, when its own powers- that- be stress its place among history’s most culturally advanced. The inherent hypocrisy of the Chinese regime is in its embracement of the “bottom line” mindset, yet claiming impermeability to the similar Western economic downturns of the 2000s. It is an interesting claim, as further suppression of information may ultimately prove the country to be more in tune with the true nature of the human experience, ego and all, than the United States or Great Britain, entities who, throughout history, have claimed some of history’s greatest misconceptions of economic power through the omnipotent hand of military might.
‘High Tech, Low Life’ comes as an interesting voice in the global debate on free press, the nature of journalism, as well as the ongoing deception perpetrated by the powers that be, claiming activities such as cyber terrorism and the existence of the surveillance state do not, in fact, exist. But how can this be true in an age of metadata, iClouds, bitcoins and the materialistic focus of a global “free” market? If for no other reason, the rise of cryptographic communication opens source software and Tor browsers prove that the surveillance state is alive, well and global as the above –mentioned documentary shows.
‘High Tech Low Life‘ will be released June 18, 2013 on iTunes in North America through the Sundance Institute Artist Services program and its exclusive aggregation partner, Cinedigm. The film will also make its National Broadcast Premiere as part of the 26th season of the award-winning PBS series POV on Monday, July 22, 2013 at 10 p.m.
– by Steve Rickinson