AFS Doc Nights Preview: High Tech, Low Life

Blogger "Zola" in High Tech Low Life 

Director Stephen T. Maing's documentary High Tech, Low Life depicts a period of time (2008-early 2012, I think) in the lives of two Chinese bloggers as they attempt to circumvent censorship in China, aka "The Great Firewall." We are first introduced to "Zola," a 26-year-old produce seller from Hunan Province who likes to post stories that state media won't and other reporters can't.  He says, "The truth is, I don't know what journalism is... I just record what I witness." 

This is a marked contrast with "Tiger Temple," a 57-year-old retiree based out of an apartment in Beijing, inspired to start a blog in 2004 after witnessing and documenting a murder in the street. Tiger Temple rides his bike long distances  to cover stories upon request/small donation, and tends to get emotionally involved. After finding homeless folk in Tiananmen Square, forgotten by the country that had removed them from their rural homes decades ago, he starts raising funds on his site to provide them with housing. 

While the older blogger tends to take a step back so he's not part of the story he's telling, Zola throws himself in.  He takes a photo of himself leaning towards the coffin of a girl attacked and killed by an official's son (the official word is this middle-schooler did three pushups on a bridge and then decided to jump off). He makes a flag with his picture on it. This makes slightly more sense when you hear him at supper with his parents attesting to the importance of the individual, as his mother argues that one should think of country first.

Watching High Tech Low Life, I kept thinking of Ai Weiwei's story. All three men are speaking truth to power (albeit in different ways), but artist Weiwei has his celebrity and international recognition to count on. The risk that Zola and Tiger Temple are taking seems that much greater. "If they want to get me, they'll find a reason, " Zola comments after a friend warns the police are investigating him. As the years pass, their following and notoriety grows larger and larger.

The possibility that at any moment the authorities could clamp down on either of these men makes for a tense and fascinating film.  There are some breathless moments where one wonders if this will be the end of their truth-telling. Maing's film sucked me in from the start, and these two personalities are worth spending time with.

Austin Film Society will screen High Tech Low Life Wednesday evening, April 10 at Alamo Drafthouse Village [ticket info]. Below is the trailer: