Under pressure: "High Tech," "Never Sorry" document expression in modern China
The people behind the Milwaukee Film Festival have brought many a good idea to the big screen, and the Passport program certainly makes the list.
Back by popular demand, the second Passport program features a collection of documentary and fiction films set in China. Two of these – "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" and "High Tech, Low Life" – provide an especially unique and in-depth perspective of life behind the inspirational facade of modern China. Through the eyes of the nation's citizen reporters, advocates and activists, these documentaries shine lights into the hidden darkness behind China's "Great Firewall."
Unlike in the United States, China's Communist government heavily polices its media. Their stringent policies allow only news stories that cast the nation in a positive light and restrict Internet access to counteract the outside world's potentially detrimental influences.
Dissatisfied with this skewed view of their world, a small population of intrepid citizens has set out to document the truth. These "citizen reporters" collect stories from around the country and publish them online with a motley mix of covert tools and tech-savvy skills to circumvent the government blocks.
"High Tech, Low Life" is the story of 26-year-old vegetable salesman Zhou "Zola" Shuguang and retired divorcee Zhang Shihe, a.k.a. Tiger Temple. Although they each have their separate lives, they both represent the aim of China's underground citizen reporter movement.
Without formal training and armed with handheld video cameras, they travel the country to talk to rural farmers, poor villagers and others who have been cast aside as contemporary China industrializes its urban infrastructure.
It sounds daunting, but for them the task is simple. They seek to give a voice back to those who lost it under the government's oppressive regime. And, despite technological roadblocks and the constant scrutiny of police, their blogs have garnered a steady increase in popularity and attention from around the world.
This attention doesn't come without risks, though. "High Tech" is quick to document Zhou and Zhang's triumphs, but most of the doc is mired in struggle – their subjects' and their own.
Zhou is barred from leaving the country, and gets threatened in the middle of the night in his own home. Zhang is followed as he travels to an impoverished village, and is unlawfully detained for 10 days for no other reason than the detaining officers' loosely explained suspicions.
These "one step forward, two steps back" setbacks are measured out with a frustrating evenness throughout the film. It's a constant frustration for the audience – not because of its organization, which is skillfully paced, but because the corruption and authoritarianism of the government and its officials is so incredible it crosses over into ridiculous territory more than once.
Still, these two reporters persevere with a steadfast optimism and the support of their friends and family. This is "High Tech"'s biggest strength: by taking the time to personify its online crusaders, it paints all citizen reporters as more than just government rebels. It gives a fuller voice to the very people who put their lives at risk to provide that same right to the country's forgotten people.
One of China's most outspoken advocates of citizen reporters is artist Ai Weiwei. Ai, the subject of "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," is also a critic of the Communist regime in his own right, using his art to express stark commentaries on its abuses of power.
Many of the nation's artists operate within the system, but not Ai. He chooses to create deliberately subversive material – multiple photographs of himself and others giving the finger, ancient vases painted with pop culture emblems and smashed – as a means of exposing the hypocrisy of Chinese officials.
"Never Sorry" spends a great deal of time focused on a particularly passionate project of Ai's driven by the Sichuan earthquake. After hundreds of children were killed in a substandard building collapse, Ai set out to track down the names of every child lost in the disaster.
Despite the efforts of the Chinese government to keep not just the total, but the children's names, swept under the rug, Ai published a list of hundreds of names on his own blog and Twitter account, later developing a large-scale art installation inspired by their memory.
It's not just the art that directly flies in the face of the Communist government that draws Chinese officials' ire. Much of his art is a beautiful yet brutal commentary on the perpetual, unchanging nature of the Chinese arts culture, and even this simple expose is enough to subject Ai's life to constant surveillance and persecution.
Early on, Ai tells interviewers his battles with Chinese authorities are not unlike the moves in a chess match. However, the government's actions are far from a game. "Never Sorry" gives the audience a startling and dangerous look at its capabilities, including an especially invasive encounter at a hotel that left Ai in the hospital.
Remarkably, Ai's composure – and resolve – remains steadfast. "If we don't push, there's nothing happening," he says. His personal credo echoes through the entire documentary – not just by Ai himself, but by his peers, critics, friends and family, too. It's so ingrained in his nature that, without the interjections of police scrutiny, the theme almost becomes commonplace.
Like "High Tech," "Never Sorry" smartly infuses elements of Ai's personal life to humanize him. His own struggles, coupled with those of his parents and friends, help fill out his story but almost seem unnecessary at times. Ai's condemnation of the Chinese government is so casually resolute that the documentary makes it seem like this is the people of China's natural state of being. And, in a way, it is.
The risks are still very high for those who resist the Communist regime in contemporary China. However, the dissident population continues to grow. It's a welcome thought to many, including Ai's mother, who offered a mix of concern and hope for her son and his mission,
"One person cannot solve the problems of the whole country. But if everyone ignores the country's problems, what will happen?"
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