Spanning the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to the fallout of the social media-driven Arab Spring in 2011, Tribeca documentary High Tech, Low Life is a stunning, moving gem that follows the lives of two Chinese bloggers: the young , brash Zola and the established, measured Tiger Temple.
Zola is a child of the '80s who likes the fame and danger that comes with being a citizen journalist. Expert in matters of having multiple SIM cards and phones, he represents the new era of Chinese bloggers. For him, jumping over The Great Firewall, China's censorship of the Internet, requires just a little knowledge of code and IP scramblers. He appeared at a Q&A after the screening yesterday in the East Village with director Stephen Maing. Zola was clearly thrilled at being in NYC, which he described as "awesome" with a huge smile.
The doc shows just how awesome it must be to Zola, who comes from a rural village where his parents cook food over an open fire and admonish him to find a wife and have a son. Putting on hold his parents' plans for him to be a vegetable seller, Zola travels to a small village where rumor has it the son of an official raped and murdered a teenager, throwing her body into a river. Everyone in the town seems to know what really happened, but at a press conference held a week later, they report that the son was doing push-ups on the bridge with the girl when she suddently stood up and announced she didn't want to live anymore and jumped. It's a bizarre, totally implausible cover-up that reflects the nature of Chinese bureaucracy. As Zola clarified in the Q&A, covering events like these may bring visits and monitoring from the police, but it's still legal and tolerated by the government. The most dangerous thing to write, according to Zola? Political jokes. The bloggers are in a different category from political dissidents like Ai WeiWei, but they still have their posts removed by the government. For regular Chinese citizens, these blogs provide a valuable counterpoint to the perpetually optimistic state news.
Tiger Temple, who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the '60s and '70s, is in his fifties and estranged from his family. He travels by bike thousands of kilometers to rural sites. He helps out older farmers whose rivers are filled with detergent and feces from the town upstream. His readers give donations to his website to help out the homeless in Beijing. His style is calm and wise. He understands how Chinese bureaucracy works (a lot of it is about self-preservation), and uses it to his advantage. He's also clever, narrating a video from the point-of-view of his cat in hopes that censors won't take down a video of a talking cat. He's right.
Whereas most Americans worry about things like factory conditions in China, these bloggers focus on issues in rural areas, which many feel have been forgotten as the government focuses on its cities instead of agriculture. The recent hubbub over supposed terrible working conditions in Apple plants (as described in the play The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and the subsequently retracted "This American Life" piece), compared to what the Chinese themselves feel are the unjust parts of their life, shows how little Americans understand China. This documentary offers a perspective on China that will challenge American assumptions.
Maing, the director, does an excellent job of fleshing out the personalities of these two bloggers. Having them do little things like describe all their tools and equipment yields funny, interesting results (Zola takes along traveling chopsticks and a spy scanner, which he ends up never using). They aren't pushy or outraged, as many American journalists are wont to be, and their matter-of-fact manner makes the injustices they expose all the more moving.
When Zola travels to Beijing for a story, he overhears a man singing a song about the government. "I was shocked to hear someone sing that in the open," he says later. "I thought all the people in Beijing were loyal party-lovers." High Tech, Low Life offers similar revelations for its viewers, who should seek out this eye-opening view of life in China.