POV: So tell us about the film. Describe it for someone who hasn’t seen it.
Stephen Maing: Well High Tech, Low Life tells a story of two seemingly average Chinese citizens who take an interest in blogging and then find themselves reporting on censored news stories in and around China. They then soon become known independently of each other as China’s first citizen reporters. And so the film weaves two stories. One of a young guy named Zola who lives in Hunan province, works as a vegetable seller, and somehow managed to become a bit of an internet guru and really proficient at internet censorship circumvention techniques. One day he hears about a story in a neighboring city and decides to go report on it, which really launches his career. In Beijing, there is our other main character named Tiger Temple. And he was a former business owner. And had been blogging but really his story begins when he’s walking home from the museum one day and he stumbles upon an unfolding murder. His first reaction was to call the police. And then feeling like there was no way for him to really intervene, he just intuitively started documenting it with his camera. What upset him though is that when the police arrived, their first reaction wasn’t to go to the aid of the victim but actually to run up to him and yell at him for taking photographs. And this really sparked I think for him the beginning of this interest and desire to understand, well if this is happening here in Beijing, what other stories are being undocumented? And, and how else is this happening throughout the country?
POV: So how did you first get drawn into telling this, this story?
Maing: You know, I had been interested in internet youth culture and censorship issues. And I had made some films about the Asian American experience. And I had been planning a trip also to go to China and work on a couple of different project ideas and do some traveling. Before that trip I remembered an article that I had read about an eminent domain case that had mentioned how Chinese bloggers were a primary source of information after the state run media had been instructed to stop reporting on it. And it really caught my attention and made me wonder, well who are these unnamed Chinese bloggers that did this? And poking around on the internet, I came across Zola’s story and was just immediately intrigued. Along the way during the filming process, we met Tiger Temple. Zola had wanted to meet him, and had heard about this older blogger who is really interested in similar issues but was riding his bike vast distances to get to those stories. And I followed Zola to Tiger’s house. And it wasn’t until later that we realized, wow, this, this guy is really doing some unbelievable work and would be an amazing complement to Zola’s story.
POV: Zola’s a really interesting character. He’s a vegetable seller. And he’s a kid at the beginning of the film, but he matures quite a lot as the film progresses.
Maing: Initially when he first started using the internet, he said he didn’t really know his purpose until he found the internet. And, and the internet changed his life. And so he had been blogging about his life and hometown. It wasn’t until he heard about this unfolding situation where residents were pushing back against private developers who were trying to evict them. On a whim he decided to close his vegetable cart and in his words, go check it out and, and maybe see how he could help and perhaps make a name for himself in the process. It’s not to say that he’s not driven much by a real sense of social justice and vigilance and the desire to really fix problems, but it was also you know, there were also these other layers. He saw an opportunity. On the other hand there was this guy who had lived through the Cultural Revolution, a very painful period for him and his family and was using the internet also as a way to finally be able to express himself. But, everything that he would talk about and report on was often through the lens of history. It was amazing when we made that linkage, in the process of making the film that here was this young guy who was about the moment, about today and was very interested in sort of the course of the future and how to make things better. And, and here was this older, almost doppelganger, but somebody who didn’t grow up with internet and that kind of technology and saw everything through the lens of history. And so the two stories for me started to comment on each other and, and draw a larger portrait of China today.
POV: How did his family react to his kind of deepening engagement in this kind of social justice and citizen reporting?
Maing:You know what, one of my favorite parts about the film and getting to know Zola is that a lot of his struggles are very universal ones with his family, that is. For him, his mother especially represents this idea of the past, that an older generation is more entrenched in almost a Confucian style adherence to hierarchy and authority. There are a lot of young people like Zola who are a product of this so-called ’80s generation, a generation that’s uh, perhaps more individualistic, more selfish. You know for the first time with this incredible economic boom in China the middle class has grown exponentially and people can have much more. And, and this is a positive product actually, results of the Chinese Communist Party’s economic reform policies. You know there have also been negative outcomes of that. And that’s very much the kind of things and issues and stories that Tiger and Zola seek out.
POV: I think Zola at one moment in the film talks about television news in China and how it’s all good news. Tell us about some of the risks that they run by being out there reporting on these stories. And, and you know what are some of the consequences that they or their peers face?
Maing: Early on I had asked Zola how low key we should be and maybe if we should keep this filming thing a little bit on the down low. And he was like, oh don’t worry, I’ve actually been taking photos of you filming me. I’ve posted that on my blog. The authorities tell me they read my blog. And so we’ll find out soon enough what they think about what you’re doing. And I was like, you did what? And he’s like look, we have to be transparent and we don’t want to act like there’s anything to hide. And Tiger actually had done a similar thing.They’re using the internet and social media and all of this not just to disseminate news, but also as a way of gauging where they are and what they’re doing and how sensitive what they’re doing is. And, and something that I think we don’t always understand or can imagine is that there’s a give and a take actually. And they’re engaged in a discourse with their local officials and authorities. You know there’s a saying in China that goes you don’t know where the boundary is, you have to reach out and try and touch it. And in the process of trying, you’ll know.
POV: So talking of boundaries, tell us about the “great firewall.” What is that and how does it function?
Maing: The “great firewall” as they call it is the nickname for the censorship mechanism in China. There’s another saying, you should avoid reporting on or talking about the three T’s and the F. So Tiananmen, Taiwan, and Tibet, and Falun Gong have always been very sensitive issues. People are very delicate with talking about them. All those words are banned. They’re filtered words that you won’t be able to do a search in Google and get information about. The list of words that are filtered is always growing, if not evolving and fluctuating. So you know at some point the words referring to Xinjiang or you know high speed train crash, things like that were banned. But then you also find a lot of posts were allowed to be disseminated in social media about the high speed railway crash at a time when the government actually understood, well look, we know enough to understand that censorship can’t be air-tight.
POV: So is there an army of thousands of people you know just trolling the internet for people’s sites and blogs?
Maing: Censorship in China is monitored of course by the state and the central government. A lot of the onus and responsibility is also put on private companies. And it often depends on the political climate what it going on. Often when there are the annual parliamentary meetings happening in Beijing, that’s a time when you’ll find much more low level sort of internet access, even slower internet speeds.
POV: And certain sites are not accessible that we would commonly have here like Facebook and…
Maing: Sure. Sites like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube are not accessible in China
POV: So when you first met up with Zola and Tiger Temple, how did you to participate and cooperate with you?
Maing: Well so Zola’s a pretty easy guy to get in touch with. Once you find his website there are probably like seven or eight ways to reach him. I was amazed that there was so much talk about this idea of censorship in China and the Chinese blogger, but you know there hadn’t been a film or nobody really had sought to really put a human face on that. And here was this young guy that actually in some ways complicated my whole understanding or what I thought I knew about the issue. And you know he really, for me, dashed this idea of like what an activist should be, what a journalist should be. That the people who are doing citizen reporting should be social do-gooders. And in fact that it shouldn’t be about this kind of posturing of altruism and selflessness, but because that’s not always practical in China, especially for a guy who comes from such a humble backgrounds. You know he’s broke most of the time, so he would accept sponsorship. People would say, here, will you please come and report on my story? They would send him some money and he would go over. And you know that sparked some controversy at times.
POV: That was actually one of my questions. They seem to be out on the road all the time. Traveling the country, reporting on all these, all these stories. But how are they bankrolled? How are they making living to survive?
Maing: You know, I think in particular, Tiger had savings from some of his former businesses that he would use. You know Zola, something that I couldn’t quite get into in the film so much was that Zola was borrowing some money from his parents. They didn’t have much to share, but they on some level really wanted to support him. And it’s something we didn’t feature in the film.
POV: I was, I was reading somewhere about there being a number of cyber-dissidents who are in jail, between 60 and 70 of them. Are those people who are operating in a similar world as Tiger Temple and Zola?
Maing: Right. Yeah, the number in the high sixties of bloggers and internet users that are currently in jail are in prisons for a wide variety of reasons. The catchall phrase seems to be inciting social instability. These are also one might say, more high profile political dissidents. And so you know the distinction I really try and make is that while Zola and Tiger really try and navigate that line, that unknown line, they’re not quite like the high level political dissidents that we hear a lot of stories about here in the west. And so they try and operate on a different level you know and they’re very much concerned about self-preservation. They, they’re not trying to get themselves thrown in jail. It’s not like I set out knowing that I’m going to make you know a dissident Chinese blogger documentary. You know I went in and I just wanted to understand and get to know these guys better. And, Zola was such an incredibly friendly person and that it seemed really manageable actually. Everything he did he did in a way that downplayed what the possible risks were. But you know that was a really interesting strategy because for the most part it really worked in his benefit. I always took their lead, and really tried to make sure that if they didn’t want to film or if [people] that they were talking to didn’t want to film, we tried to be respectful of that.
POV: Actually talk about the filming a little bit. What was your aesthetic approach?
Maing: One thing I aesthetically was very mindful of and tried to be careful of was not to over-dramatize their story in the shooting of it. I really tried to be careful of over-employing like a shaky handheld camera because I didn’t want to suggest that the threat was imminent and always present, but in fact the opposite. Like I wanted to find the compositional balance whenever possible and actually try and photograph what was a really beautiful environment often, as it was on the surface, a very beautiful, ordered environment. And in service of this idea that there’s a sense of foreboding at times and that what lies beneath is really what these guys are interested in, that on the surface you know people may say things are fine and the government may say things are fine, but really what lies beneath are these untold stories, undocumented histories that Tiger and Zola really felt needed to be understood and spoken to.
POV: There’s also just as an aside, this kind of delightly playful quality with both of them
Maing: I wanted to do a film that was about these average Chinese citizens who were using the internet in a positive sense and that they were empowering themselves. And they were doing that with a cleverness and humor. It was really amazing to learn about a period in Tiger’s blogging where he had been writing from the voice of a young kitten that he had met. A lot of that was also about this idea you know, what are they going to do? Are they going to censor a talking cat?
POV: So you’ve been showing the film in theaters and festivals around the country, what are some of the audience reactions you’ve been getting from audiences in this country?
Maing: Some of the best reactions have been just that people are surprised. And it’s a film that they didn’t actually expect to…that they didn’t expect the film to be the way it was. And I really liked hearing that, that actually when people say, like wow, I can’t believe that they can run around and get away with so much. And in a certain sense it’s not that they’re getting away with it, that they’re allowed to do that. That they’re allowed to do a lot and that there is actually more freedom of speech and that people can actually say much more than maybe you know our perceptions of China in the West make us believe.
POV: And how do you see your role as a filmmaker? Are you a journalist, an artist, a storyteller? Where do you go across the spectrum? How do you see your own particular role?
Maing: That’s a good question. You know I think we tailor our role quite a bit to sort of the work that we’re making. I see myself as a filmmaker. You know in another life I’d love to ideal myself as an artist, I want to make work that isn’t necessarily journalism actually but that incorporates sort of the rigor of journalism, but really it speaks on a different level that you know doesn’t construct these concrete meanings but actually leaves space for viewers to be thrown into actually the exact opposite, actually into situations of uncertainty that actually mirror what the characters are going through. As much as they were making very calculated risks, you know the greatest sort of fear is that fear of the unknown and not knowing exactly then how things are going to play out.
POV: Are there any particular films that have inspired you as a filmmaker, that kind of turned that switch on in your head?
Maing: You know there’s a lot of like films of the neo-realists and you know filmmaking like the kind that John Cassavetes used to do. This time and kind of filmmaking where fiction and nonfiction really kind of merge. And I tend to think that a lot of my interest in documentary filmmaking really tries to embrace a narrative style of storytelling and I’m really interested in how we reveal certain kinds of information and what we withhold. You know if I were to do a fiction film next, I’d really want to incorporate aspects of documentary filmmaking and make sure that was grounded in the realism of an environment, if not even the realism of an individual that was the quote-unquote, “actor.”
POV: So how do you see the film as a useful outreach tool?
Maing: You know, I think this film could be a really interesting outreach tool just in terms of this idea that people everywhere are facing this issue of censorship. It’s not just China. You know our own Justice Department recently has as many people subpoenaed the phone logs of 20 AP journalists. And you know this is a real clear indication that our own government doesn’t like the idea of too much transparency. No governments like the investigative muckraking, independent journalists. And it may fall under the guise in this recent case of you know anti-terrorism but really there are really important questions to be asked about transparency and the government’s relationship to that and how it tries to push back against that.
POV: I want to talk a little bit about the ethics of documentary filmmaking. As a filmmaker, you are asking people to be…who are in a vulnerable situation, to be in an even greater vulnerable situation for the purposes of being in your project. What is your ethical obligation to your characters and how do you negotiate that sense of territory both with yourself as a filmmaker, but also with them?
Maing: Well you know, I think the most important thing when you’re making a documentary is understanding that you can possibly put certain kinds of subjects who are engaged in certain things at risk. I think a lot of it has to do with this idea that this word, agency, you know when you’re filming subjects that are you know in some small corner of the world, they don’t understand why you want to film them and they don’t particularly like the idea of having a camera in their face, you know those are people that don’t possess an agency to ever have wanted to represent themselves actively. The most interesting subjects actually are the ones who have in their own mind a constructed sense of how they want the world to perceive themselves and have an agency to project that on their own. And so that actually is a window and a door that allows a filmmaker to go in and be invited actually in I should say, to help facilitate that in a sense, but also to have the perspective to see something more than that. And I think you know the camera as everybody always says you know doesn’t lie and it reveals a lot more than people sometimes even realize or are willing to reveal. Of course, documentary is a construction. Everybody knows that you’re reducing years and years of material into a one-hour, 90-minute you know production and chronology. Information is unfolding in a totally constructed way. And so you know it’s like you need to have some sort of like moral compass that guides you through that to help make the best construction possible, the one you feel is most faithful to what you’ve learned over those years. We don’t always get it right.