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After screening Stephen Maing’s eye-opening documentary, HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE, the Tribeca audience wasted no time, eager to discuss the film’s central issue: the rise of digital censorship in China and the wave of citizen reporters that have assumed the responsibility of investigating local news stories. Amongst these pioneering 21st century journalists is Zola, one of two rogue bloggers whom Maing follows in his film—and who joined Maing at High Tech, Low Life’s post-film’s Q&A.
Maing shared that the impetus for the film came from reading about an eminent domain case citing Chinese bloggers as a main source of information. From there, Maing “dug around and found Zola’s website,” which piqued his interest. This was no ordinary news blogger, Maing emphasized: Zola was reporting the “he was taking tons of pictures of himself… and pictures in Bruce Lee poses.” After connecting with Zola, Maing was introduced to the world of Tiger Temple—another independent news blogger whom Zola was eager to meet. One trip during filming even led to Zola's first meeting with Tiger Temple, though filming with Tiger did not start until several shoots later.
Following the film, which stresses the magnitude of this informational rift and the risk these bloggers face, moviegoers were eager to ask Zola about his safety: namely, if he is concerned for it. The young man cheerfully quipped, “No. I’m really excited. I don’t worry about myself because I’m not part of an organization.” As he had shared a few moments earlier: “If [you’re] an individual and don’t belong to any organization, you’re safe. If you’re part of an organization, you will be in trouble. I promise,” a remark that both tickled and sobered the crowd.
Maing added that “it’s important to note that these [bloggers] are not the same as some of the high-level political dissidents we hear a lot about in the news. They are acting within the legal bounds of free speech in a legal fashion and in line with their civil rights.” Given the in-depth scope of the film, multiple audience members expressed concern about how the film will impact Zola, Tiger, and their comrades. “This is something we have always considered very carefully. Prior to this film, both Zola and Tiger had been reported on by countless news outlets all over the world like the New York Times, BBC, NHK & Al Jazeera. My co-producer based in Beijing says fortunately and unfortunately there’s no real audience for documentaries in China.” Maing calmly replied. “Plus, the government knows they must allow people to express themselves to some degree,” he said. “When you open the window, you have to be okay that flies will come in,” he added, referencing a line by Deng Xiaoping.”
Curious about Zola’s safety, another member of the tech-savvy crowd inquired about the blogger’s use of anti-spy devices for his electronics. However, in his quintessentially spirited way, Zola simply said the tool is “not useful. Nobody wants to spy on me. But,” he said, addressing the audience at-large, “you know, guys, if you go to China, you have to protect yourself and your computer. You have to,” he stressed.
Finally, as the conversation came to a close, Maing was asked if he experienced any logistical difficulties entering China with all of his filming equipment—or if he was simply apprehensive about doing so. His initial trepidations notwithstanding, Maing said Zola quickly quelled his fears, assuring Maing, “It’s no problem.” Apparently, soon after they begin shooting, Zola told Maing he “posted a picture of you filming me and the police follow my blog so they probably know everything already.” Problem solved.
High Tech, Low Life screens on Saturday, April 28.