In 2006, there were roughly 110 million Internet users in China, and the first official phase of China’s censorship barrier, commonly referred to as “the Great Firewall,” had been evolving for almost a decade and was finally completed. By 2008, the number jumped to 298 million users and rumors of young resourceful Chinese “netizens” circumventing the government’s censorship restrictions began circulating on the Internet.
I wanted to make a film that explored the relatively new intersection of youth, activism and technology but after getting to know the citizen reporters who write under the names “Zola” and “Tiger Temple” over the course of four years of filming, I realized their personal stories revealed a much different narrative about a startling new China that was also still reckoning with its painful Maoist past.
When I first met Zola, a young tech-savvy Chinese blogger from Hunan Province, it seemed as though a film about him could easily be a comedy. It was immediately apparent that he had a uniquely entertaining way of expressing his individuality and progressive political views. But his story alone was not enough to contextualize the struggles he and other bloggers faced.
Upon meeting the older and more low-key Tiger Temple, I was struck by his dramatically different style and background. He is a wandering writer and self-professed romantic who regularly bikes across the mainland, and he is profoundly haunted by the persecution he and his family endured during the Cultural Revolution. What struck me about Tiger Temple and Zola was that, despite the significant generational gap between them, they shared a real curiosity about the world and a commitment to advancing freedom of speech in China—thought at times they took very different approaches to this common goal.
From 2008 to 2012, my crew and I were fortunate to observe these two individuals who had no set path or precedent to follow, but were writing their own narrative. What they each do involves the art of engagement, self-reflection and circumvention, as each strives to challenge the status quo. They immerse themselves in new and difficult situations and then find creative ways to talk about things not normally talked about—all without resorting to painting issues in black and white or being seen as political dissidents.
As a new director working in a very unpredictable environment, I took many cues from Zola and Tiger Temple. I’m interested in character-driven stories that unfold slowly and reveal larger systemic and cultural complexities Part of the film’s central question was how to tell a personal and relatable story that presented the reality of censorship and perils of political dissidence in China through experiential observations, not expert interviews. A more important challenge to me was how to contextualize the risks they were taking without over-simplifying and over-dramatizing the varied contours of their day-to-day lives.
Intimately representing people who represent other people as well as themselves in their own work was another challenge. I set out to film both men’s reporting trips, but also their everyday routines. Over long periods of filming, deep connections between their personal struggles and political personas began to emerge, so that their experiences began to echo each other, and similarities between their very different generational outlooks began to be revealed.
High Tech, Low Life is about how average Chinese citizens have begun to empower themselves in China’s new media landscape. In some ways, Zola and Tiger Temple are two people you might find in any province in the country. Because of their sometimes-vulnerable positions, our central concern was understanding the sensitive political landscape and making sure our presence would not create difficulties for them. We regularly discussed safety and how best to navigate each trip we took together. I will never forget the time I solemnly asked Zola, “How low-key should we keep things?” and he replied with a smile, “I already put some pictures online of you filming me. The authorities read my blog, so we’ll find out soon enough if they have a problem with this.”
For both Zola and Tiger Temple, transparency was always crucial and a way of showing they had nothing to hide. Figuring out how to balance traditional documentary needs like context, social issues and story development while formulating a visual language for the film that would capture more intangible atmospheric qualities of space, texture and mood was a different kind of challenge. 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 that wouldn’t get in the way of Zola and Tiger Temple’s essential stories.
Since I completed the film in April 2012, the number of Internet users in China has skyrocketed to over 513 million, and roughly 300 million of them use some form of social media. Advancements in online censorship include increased numbers of Internet police and engineers as well as Web monitors employed by privately owned Internet companies. Among the numerous new policies and regulations to control online content, China has formed the State Internet Information Office to organize these efforts and more effectively control online activity.
As the new China hurtles toward a rapidly changing future, its government and online netizens surely will continue to try to outsmart each other, while people like Zola and Tiger Temple emerge as the forefathers of a brave new civil society.
—Stephen Maing, Director/Producer/Cinematographer/Editor