Review: High Tech, Low Life


The semantic distinction some people make between “journalist” and “blogger” is pretty amusing. Many cling to one term or the other to describe themselves, as if there’s no crossover between the two, or as if the functions of the journalist and the blogger are completely different. I feel like separating the terms creates too narrow a definition of what journalists and bloggers are when they shouldn’t be so exclusive.

I bring up that distinction because it’s one of the things that’s present in High Tech, Low Life, a documentary ostensibly about citizen journalists in China who use the internet to report stories that official media outlets aren’t covering. The film follows two citizen journalists in particular: a young and narcissistic blogger named Zola, and a much older and more socially aware blogger named Tiger Temple.

High Tech Low Life- trailer

High Tech, Low Life
Director: Stephen Maing
Rating: NR
Release Date: June 18, 2013 (VOD); July 22, 2013 (PBS Premiere)

Rather than focus on the entire citizen journalist movement in China, director Stephen Maing plays on the contrast between his two subjects. It’s a much narrower focus that I thought it would be, but there’s something to be said about this documentary as a character study rather than a crash course in Chinese blogging culture.

Zola is a brash young man who seems less into hard journalism and more into blogging as a form of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. He claims at one point he doesn’t really know what journalism is, and yet it seems like an act. He travels to a town where a young woman was allegedly raped and murdered by the relative of a government official, though the police claim she committed suicide. While at her funeral, Zola says he’s blogger rather than a journalist (there’s the semantic distinction again) as a cover — it gains him access and a certain level of anonymity. Later, Zola mentions what his readers are looking for when they read his work. He uses different terms, but it’s basically the five Ws of hard news.

There’s a tension in Zola. On the one hand, he’s playing with an online persona. He’s a flippant and fun-loving kid, and he often takes photos of himself at arm’s length with the subjects of his report. And yet, if he just wanted to be an online celebrity, he wouldn’t be covering serious stories, albeit in a not-so-serious way. It’s as if Maing caught up with Zola just as he was understanding the difference between online notoriety, role as blogger, and duty as a journalist. All three pull in their own directions as Zola’s profile rises and as the government places more scrutiny on his work.

Tiger Temple, on the other hand, has embraced his role as an online muckraker and investigative journalist. (And what a great name.) In his fifties, sometimes wearing two pairs of glasses to watch TV, Tiger says he’s not going to live much longer and just wants to tell the truth until he dies. To tell it, he travels thousands of kilometers on his bike to cover stories out in the Chinese countryside. He documents flood damage and water pollution and the plight of farmers. If he doesn’t do it, no one else will. Tiger melds these dispatches and bits of reportage with direct action. He’s not just a reporter, he’s an activist, which makes him a target of the Chinese government.

By focusing on Zola and Tiger, Maing basically explores generational differences and the philosophical differences that come from life experience. Whereas Tiger lived through the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Zola (born in the 1980s) seems to have lived a rather complacent life. This may define their approaches to citizen journalism. Having lived through what he’s lived through, Tiger feels a sense of duty and obligation to others. Given his generally isolated personal life, he seems to relish in this ability to make a difference somehow, or at the very least to get people agitated enough to pay attention.

Zola spends one scene in the documentary arguing with his parents about where his duty lies. Is it with the country, the family, or himself as an individual? His parents think it’s the country and family, but Zola thinks of himself. It’s unclear which of these groups his citizen journalism serves, or in what proportion. Maybe it varies. Another story Zola covers involves the living/working conditions of Beijing construction workers. It’s not as bad as the foreign contract workers in Dubai, but it’s far from ideal. Maybe there’s a little Tiger in him occasionally.

There’s some interesting suspense in High Tech, Low Life that gets caught on film. Late at night, someone bangs on Zola’s apartment door for 10 minutes. He records this with his Blackberry, unsure who’s out there but pretty certain it’s some goon hired by the government to intimidate him. Tiger is similarly pressured in the film, and yet he continues to do what he does. He takes it in stride. What’s a hassle like this for a man who’ll bike days from home just to make sure someone’s story is being told?

This government harassment also points out the tension in Zola’s motives, which are still, even by the end of the film, in the process of defining themselves. Tiger is set in his ways and has committed himself to a cause, so these sorts of problems he can face with admirable bravery. There’s something in Tiger’s demeanor that says, “Go ahead, bring it. I’ve got nothing to lose.” Zola could quit being a citizen journalist and not have to deal with these problems at all, but he persists. Maybe for the thrill, but maybe something else.

There’s room for both kinds of journalists and bloggers depicted in High Tech, Low Life. Zola gets a comment that says something like, “I don’t like your personality, but there’s value in what you do.” The information is what’s most important, and it’s what should come before any semantic distinctions between “journalist” and “blogger.”

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.