The Internet has offered opportunities for people that previously didn’t have outlets for their voices to be heard. Two shining examples of this are the subject of Stephen Maing’s documentary, High Tech, Low Life.

While living in China, both have been subject to the “Great firewall” that blocks and filters internet content. But with the help of some loopholes they have found their soapboxes ready, provided they use an online platform.

Zhou Shuguang AKA Zola was originally a 27-year-old vegetable hawker. He says he was a “nobody” until he discovered the Internet. But after realising that a lot of the news he received (from the state-run outlets) was of either the “good” or “happy” variety- he wanted to get to the bottom of things. He would go on to cover topics like the homeless situation and an important rape case involving the son of a government official.

Zola says there are six things the audience wants to know. These are: time, place, character, cause, development and conclusion. It’s an interesting insight from a guy who appeared to start off in this game due to the allure of fame and one who now admits he doesn’t know what journalism actually is.

By contrast the 57-year-old Zhang Shihe AKA Tiger Temple‘s work is a lot less self-serving and almost the result of general activism. The retiree was the country’s first “citizen journalist”. He fell into the role after witnessing a woman being murdered on a street in 2004. He took photos and when the police arrived at the bloody scene their first response was to berate him for taking pictures rather than deal with the actual crime.

Temple is one interesting character. He sings and plays harmonica and his blogs are offered from the perspective of his cat, Mongolia, because he figured the Chinese government wouldn’t censor a talking feline (they didn’t). He travels the countryside talking to farmers affected by polluted land (rather Erin Brockovich-like) and individuals made homeless in the then lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. He connects with his interviewees and goes the extra mile by giving them food and money or by passing on their details to NGOs and other relevant parties who can offer services beyond his reporting.

Director, Stephen Maing does a fine job of telling and interweaving the parallel stories of these two bloggers. He includes excerpts from their posts and proves that while they are separated by a generation and different personal approaches, they are actually rather similar in their resolve to challenge the status quo and give a complete and accurate picture about what is happening in the world around them. Early on Zola says: “I live in an environment where all of the news is good news”. But he believes this is rubbish and proves this with his stories, even though he uses a more playful, Gonzo-like approach. This includes taking photos of himself on the beat that are reminiscent of those typically found on a Facebook wall, even though sometimes these are wildly inappropriate.

Four years in the making, High Tech, Low Life does an excellent job of showing the gut determination that these two important figures have despite being harassed, arrested, intimidated, evicted and receiving widespread disapproval for their work. It also informs us about what the two have achieved, like ensuring that residents have received fair compensation from developers and assisting with the displaced. They are simply two regular and charismatic Joes helping normal people within the confines of the law and in an environment that is undergoing numerous changes.

High Tech, Low Life is a documentary about a worthy topic, particularly as the government and private sector continue to monitor the internet in China while closer to home in Australia we have our own issues with proposed internet filters and Wikileaks. But thankfully the final message is one of hope because they want to educate people and cause them to question and criticise an imperfect system. The two are also training up and readying themselves to pass the baton on to a new generation of citizen journalists. And as such, this illustrative and sensitive documentary should prove an important piece in the educational puzzle as it deftly deals with the responsibilities, risks, rights and services of (citizen) journalists and should be shown in schools and universities everywhere.

Review score: 3.5 stars

Originally published on 18 June 2012 at the following website:

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