Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Stephen Maing's "High Tech, Low Life"

High Tech, Low Life. 2012. Directed and photographed by Stephen Maing. Produced by Stephen Maing and Trina Rodriguez. Edited by Stephen Maing and Jonathan Oppenheim. Music by Brendon Anderegg, Brad Hyland, and Kevin Micka.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

Stephen Maing’s timely and fascinating documentary High Tech, Low Life, examines the subject of journalism and internet censorship in China through the eyes and experiences of two very different citizen journalists.  Both are people from humble backgrounds who found a new calling using the power of blogging and the internet to uncover stories hidden from the public by the government and to give other people like themselves (often in worse circumstances) a voice and an outlet for their grievances that they have been denied in official channels.  High Tech, Low Life has its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

27-year-old Zhou Shuguang, known by the blogger handle “Zola,” before embarking on his new internet life, was a vegetable seller from Fengmuqiao, Hunan Province.  “I used to be a nobody before I discovered the internet,” he says by way of introduction.  After deciding on impulse to investigate the forced eviction of citizens of a neighboring province by city developers, and posting what he found on his blog, the overwhelming response and the measure of fame he received encouraged him to pursue citizen journalism full time.  The next major case we see him reporting on is the rape and murder of a young girl by a high official’s relative, and the apparent subsequent cover-up of this crime.  This episode is illuminating not only for its demonstration of Zola’s tenacious efforts to expose the government’s complicity in protecting well-connected criminals, but also the potentially negative aspects of Zola’s attention-seeking personality.  Zola gets his information by disavowing any sort of journalistic identity, posing as simply a curious onlooker and blogger.  He attends the dead girl’s public wake, and rather ill-advisedly snaps a photo of himself smiling by the girl’s coffin, drawing an outraged comment on his blog condemning his lack of respect for the dead.  Certainly, there is an egocentric aspect to Zola’s activities: he often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with his own image, and at one point he takes a picture of himself that makes it look as if he is leaping over the Great Wall of China, which he makes into a large poster that he displays at a Chinese blogger conference.  However, he consciously sees himself as a representative of the youth of China, with their distracted, short attention spans, and his brash, outsized antics seem designed to appeal to them.  And of course, it’s not only about fame, since there are far safer and less controversial ways of achieving fame than flouting censorship; he is no activist, but he tirelessly strives to bring to light practices of corruption and exploitation in his society that are kept from the public.

57-year-old Zhang Shihe, known as “Tiger Temple,” lives in Beijing, and has a much more low-key personality than the younger Zola.  Similarly to Zola, he got into citizen journalism pretty much by accident: he witnessed a brutal murder being committed in public and posted stills on his blog.  It was eventually taken down, but not before being circulated widely by others on the internet.  Tiger Temple finds the outlet for literary expression and his wish to help others less fortunate that had heretofore eluded him, regularly traveling on his bike to the countryside and reporting on farmers who have been neglected and ill-treated by government authorities.  He interviews and reports on people who have had their land used as dumping grounds for toxic industrial and human wastes, and on those who have suffered the broken promises of government to assist them during changing agrarian policies.  Tiger Temple’s age and personal background provide a sense of history and cultural context that forms a counterpoint to Zola’s relative inexperience.  Tiger Temple’s family suffered from persecution during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, in which his family lost everything and he became homeless; thereafter Tiger Temple embarked on the itinerant lifestyle that he practices today.  Tiger Temple, also in contrast to Zola, sees his brand of journalism as activism and advocacy for the people he reports on.  He arranges for legal representation for the farmers, and he also tries to help the homeless in Beijing around Tiananmen Square find housing after the city destroys their makeshift shelters. 

The film alternates between Zola and Tiger Temple’s separate trajectories, until the two finally meet at a Chinese blogger’s conference.  During their meeting, Tiger Temple sizes up Zola immediately: he calls him a “playful warrior,” a great phrase that perfectly describes Zola’s approach to his journalistic activities.  Zola is also quite self-aware of his own generation: “We’re selfish,” he says of himself and others of his age; he sees this attitude as the first step in “breaking out of the Communist mindset.”

Zola and Tiger Temple are far from fire-breathing radicals, but their activities in reporting uncensored news nevertheless puts them squarely on the government authorities’ radar.  Even though both are careful not to call themselves “journalists” to avoid government regulation and censorship, this doesn’t prevent them from regularly being followed during their travels and having their plans thwarted.  Zola is refused permission to leave the country to attend a blogger’s conference in Germany, and Tiger Temple is detained in the middle of the night and forced to leave Beijing during a national conference.  Their efforts to evade the “Great Firewall,” China’s massive internet censorship mechanism, by providing information unfiltered by the state, cause them to be regarded as threats to national security.  The heat on them only increases during such sensitive times as the Beijing Olympics and the state uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the so-called “Arab Spring.”

As indicated in title High Tech, Low Life, Stephen Maing gives us a thorough sense of how the latest technological tools can be used to illuminate the lives of those who live far from the places where such tools are commonly available.  In China’s case, many of these people are those who have been left behind, and often trampled under, in the wake of the country’s rapid economic progress.  High Tech, Low Life travels from Beijing to the remote countryside, binding the experiences of the two contrasting blogger personalities who are its subjects with evocative visuals that vividly illustrate the social context that surrounds these two men and their search for the truth.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Asghar Farhadi, "About Elly" (2009)

About Elly (Darbareye Elly). 2009. Written, directed, production and costume design by Asghar Farhadi. Cinematography by Hossein Jafarian. Edited by Hayedeh Safarian. Sound by Hassan Zahedi and Mohammad-Reza Delpak.

Cast: Golshifteh Farahani (Sepideh), Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly), Shahab Hosseini (Ahmad), Mani Haghighi (Amir), Merila Zarei (Shohreh), Peiman Ma'adi (Peyman), Ahmad Mehranfar (Manouchehr), Rana Azadivar (Nazzie), Saber Abar (Ali-Reza).

About Elly is a psychologically penetrating film in which a woman’s disappearance gives rise to all sorts of complex issues of morality (both within an Iranian context and without), and questions of culpability and responsibility for tragedy.  The film ever so subtly switches gears from an observational and lightly comic portrait of Iranian middle-class life to a much darker morality play, and astutely demonstrates how both of these modes can be two sides of the same coin.  The story begins innocently and benignly enough, as a group of university friends from Tehran go for a vacation at a beach house near the Caspian Sea, where they engage in various sorts of horseplay, games of charade, volleyball, and other activities, taking advantage of the holiday to shake off the constrictions of their workaday lives.  The group consists of a couple of married couples and their kids, as well as the title character, Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), a shy kindergarten teacher and an outsider to the group who is reluctantly dragged there by her friend Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), whose child is in Elly’s class.  Beneath the surface of this deceptively idyllic situation lies deceptions and secret personal agendas, beginning with Sepideh’s true purpose in bringing Elly on this trip: to set her up with Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a divorcee living in Germany who is now in Iran on a short visit, and in the market for a new wife.  When the rest of the group catches wind of Sepideh’s attempts at matchmaking, they join in on trying to bring the two together.  Elly resists, for reasons that are revealed only much later.

Farhadi proves to be quite adept at carefully controlling the tone of his film, and by so slowly and patiently setting up the situation and the complex nexus of relationships between the characters, he succeeds in deceiving the viewer as well, lulling us into the notion that this film will continue in this comic mode.  However, about 45 minutes or so into the film, the mood abruptly shifts gears when one of the children is swept out to sea while playing on the beach.  The child is eventually rescued, but an even more serious situation arises when Elly, who had been watching the children, herself goes missing.  At this point, the web of deceit tightens on all of the film’s characters, as all the lies, casual and serious, necessary and unnecessary, come back to haunt them, and the consequences of these lies are unforgiving.  Although some of the deceptions arise from particular proprieties necessary in Iranian society (for example, introducing Ahmad and Elly to the old woman who rents them the beach house as newlyweds), others are much more problematic and in many cases a function of serious breaches of ethics, committed in an attempt to save face or avoid problems with the police.  The brilliance of Farhadi’s script and direction (he won the Silver Bear for best director at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival) becomes most apparent in the later stages of the film, as he deftly maps out the shifts in the perceptions and behavior of the characters toward each other (as well as the viewer’s perception of the characters), as one secret after another is revealed.  Farhadi’s cast is uniformly excellent, especially Farahani, who compellingly registers Sepideh’s shock at how her seemingly innocent matchmaking has taken such a tragic turn, as well as the way her character, like others in the film, is revealed to not be what it initially appears.

About Elly screens on April 6 at 8:30pm, April 7 at 6:45pm, and April 8 at 1:30 at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's retrospective "Asghar Farhadi's Iran." Click here to purchase tickets.