High Tech, Low Life: Tribeca Review

Dry doc introduces two of the voices crying in the wilderness of unofficial Chinese newsgathering.

Stephen Maing's doc follows two journalists who pursue stories that the official Chinese media doesn't want to cover.

NEW YORK — Offering a small window through China's "Great Firewall," Stephen Maing's High Tech, Low Life follows two citizen journalists whose attempts to spread unwelcome news draws low-key harassment from local authorities. Commercial prospects are limited by the doc's narrow scope and dry delivery, but the worthy topic will attract attention at fests.

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Maing's two subjects, the 50-something "Tiger Temple" and 20ish "Zola," share little beyond a willingness to leave home in pursuit of stories the official media doesn't want to cover. Zola's "Western" style is egocentric and fame-seeking; when he visits a village where an official’s relative has allegedly raped and killed a high schooler, he takes a smiling self-portrait beside the girl's coffin. Tiger, by contrast, is an earnest journo-activist, bringing food to his impoverished interviewees and helping them file complaints about environmental crimes.
Maing tags along on some of their reporting missions (Tiger bikes thousands of miles while documenting farmers' problems), letting each speak a bit about how they fell into blogging and how they reconcile what they do with ideals of journalistic objectivity. We watch Zola circumvent internet censorship early on, but little real interference pops up until late in the film, when he is kept from leaving the country and Tiger is forced out of his Beijing home briefly, lest he attract the Western media's attention.
Little effort is made to place the two men in a broader context -- we leave the film with no idea how many people are doing this in China, where these two stand within the online community, and whether state media outlets have changed at all in response to them. But we do see that readers are paying attention -- at one point, at least 200,000 people are reading Zola's posts, hungry to hear from a credible source even if, as one commenter puts it, "I hate your personality, but people like you are still of value."
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, World Documentary Competition
Production Companies: Mud Horse Pictures, ITVS
Director-Director of photography: Stephen Maing
Producers: Stephen Maing, Trina Rodriguez
Editors: Stephen Maing, Jonathan Oppenheim
No rating, 88 minutes