Director Stephen Maing, right, and Chinese blogger Zola answer questions at the Tribeca Film Festival. (CPJ/Gregory Fay)
Director Stephen Maing, right, and Chinese blogger Zola answer questions at the Tribeca Film Festival. (CPJ/Gregory Fay)

New film “High Tech, Low Life” on Chinese bloggers

High Tech, Low Life,” a new documentary about Chinese bloggers directed by Stephen Maing, debuted at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 19. It documents the lives of Zola (Zhou Shuguang) and Tiger Temple (Zhang Shihe), as they blur the lines of citizen journalism and activism though their reporting on evictions, pollution, and official cover-ups in China. Zola was in town for the premiere, and he and the director fielded questions from the audience after the film’s showing.

Maing said the movie was inspired by this 2007 New York Times article, which describes how bloggers beat the mainstream media to the story of a woman who withstood pressure, at least for a time, to sell her home to real-estate developers. Maing said his search for the bloggers led to Zola, who engages not only in online reporting but in Internet training to navigate online censorship.

“I used to be a nobody until I discovered the Internet,” declares Zola in the movie’s opening.  This braggadocio propels his work despite government and family pressure to stop blogging. CPJ has reported on Zola’s tweeting his own detention during the Beijing Olympics. True to form, he describes being in New York for the film’s premiere on his blog.

Zola’s flare for publicity has landed him in trouble in the past. In 2008, he reported on the alleged rape and murder of 16-year-old Li Shufen in Weng’an, which government officials declared a suicide. Using the excuse that he was filming himself instead of reporting, he was able to document scenes that would otherwise have been restricted, even taking his picture with Li’s coffin–a move which drew considerable criticism from commenters on the blog. Last week in New York, he reflected gravely on that choice, but said he believed that his reporting–which was widely distributed before it was censored–ultimately helped draw attention to an injustice.

Tiger Temple, who is 30 years Zola’s senior, is a blogger and activist who rides his bicycle hundreds of miles across China chasing stories. He fell into online reporting in 2004 when he witnessed a murder. After calling the police, he snapped photos which he later posted online. Tiger immerses himself in his work; for example, he not only reports on people made homeless by the Beijing Olympics but also fundraises on their behalf.

Like Zola, Tiger walks a careful line with censorship. In the film, he is shown blogging about censorship from the point of view of his cat to try and prevent his blog from being shut down by censors. Tiger wrote in his blog post about the film that he does not identify himself as a “citizen journalist” so much as a “citizen documentarian”–and that while all Internet users can document, journalists are subject to industry regulations.

Zola and Tiger are inspiring, but “High Tech, Low Life” is not overly optimistic.  At the end of the film, they meet at the 2009 CNBloggerCon convention, the last successful staging of an annual conference for Chinese bloggers before officials shut it down in 2010.  Zola himself left the mainland soon after, to fulfill his family’s long-time dream of marriage, and now resides in Taiwan; though when I asked if he would be permitted to return, his answer was yes.

“High Tech, Low Life” screens Thursday at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.