A conversation with the filmmaker Shengze Zhu
After her directorial debut, Out Of Focus (2014), and her much accoladed Another Year (2016), a three-hour film about thirteen evening meals taken by a family of migrant workers in China, the Chinese documentary filmmaker Shengze Zhu—co-founder of the production company Burn The Film—spent hundreds of hours with live-streamers for her most recent work, Present.Perfect. From her recorded footage she created a narrative in four chapters without additionally filmed material. The protagonists of the film talk about their daily routines, chat with their followers, share their lives. They include a seamstress who sews underwear in a clothes factory, an accident victim whose face was disfigured by a fire, a thirty-year-old who still looks like a twelve-year-old boy. DIAPHANES talks to Shengze Zhu about the making of her film, which won the Tiger Award at the International film Festival Rotterdam (2019), about the live-streaming industry in China, the loneliness of her protagonists, and the social implications of this form of communication, which is enjoying a boom in China.
Can you describe the phenomenon of live-streaming sites in China. When did it start? How has it developed? What is the present situation?
Live-streaming is a relatively new medium. Back in 2010 or 2011 it barely existed in China. But over the past several years it has become one of the most profitable industries. According to a report from a state-owned agency, the revenue from live-streaming reached 30.45 billion yuan (about 4.76 billion US dollars) in China in 2017, with more than 400 million active users involved.
The year of 2016 is widely considered as the “year zero” for the live-streaming craze. There were more than 300 companies in China that provided online live streaming platforms, according to an incomplete statistics in 2016. While live-streaming has grown at an astounding speed, problems such as the streaming of obscenity, violence, and other inappropriate content also emerged. And its capability to disseminate anonymous, unregulated, and user-generated content has caught the attention of the authorities. A formal set of regulations and laws has taken effect since late 2016, aiming at cleaning up the cyberspace as well as maintaining cybersecurity. Although streaming anchors can determine their online persona, they must now register the live-streaming account with their real name and citizen ID number, and their online behaviors are strictly regulated.
Live-streaming is one of the most popular social media in China and “live-streaming anchor” became accepted as a normal occupation in many places. While it has produced enormous revenues and numerous Internet celebrities, it also provides a popular gathering place for masses of Chinese netizens.
When and how did you learn about it? What led you to your new film Present.Perfect.?
I wasn’t familiar with live-streaming before I started. I actually had never watched a show on streaming platforms before making this film, although occasionally I saw some clips on social media in which live-streamers were doing extreme activities or bizarre things. Then there was a tragic incident that took place in China in the fall of 2017—there was a young man in his twenties who often live-streamed on the rooftop of different buildings. Once he was doing stunts at the top of a skyscraper in Changsha, and fell to his death. This incident made me very curious about live-streaming, I wanted to know why people would risk their lives doing it. So I started watching shows. Soon I realized that live-streaming revealed to me a world that I had never seen before. It’s a world that only exists in cyberspace, and that you could only see through computer or smartphone screens. It’s wild, peculiar, and even savage, yet creative, genuine and full of vitality.
On the other hand, I’ve always been interested in seeing the world through the eyes of others. I want to know how people see their world, their perception of the world. We often say documentary is about reality, but I think reality is not only related to what’s in front of the camera, but more importantly, who’s behind the camera. This virtual streaming world is just like this—it unfolds itself through the lenses of different people from distinctive backgrounds. That’s why I never consider this film as a found-footage film, even though all the footage is from the Internet. For me it’s more like a film shot by many different people from across China.
How much footage is there, and how did you manage the process of gathering your material?
Now there’s about 800 hours of footage on my hard drives, but actually I watched more than this.
I spent a whole year working on this film, and during this year I attentively followed a vast array of live-streaming anchors on three different platforms. Almost every day—if I wasn’t traveling, I spent 8–10 hours, and sometimes 12–15 hours, watching the streaming shows, and occasionally chatting with the anchors. I lived on screen for months.
At the beginning I was just randomly watching the shows. I didn’t know whom to follow, what to watch. So I just watched many different kinds of shows, following anchors I liked. I probably subscribed to a few hundred people. After working for four or five months I began to have a clearer idea of what to do, what the focus would be. At that time I still had probably 70 to 80 people I followed. After seven or eight months I narrowed it down to 20 to 30 people. It was a very time-consuming and energy-consuming process.
Moreover, as the streaming shows aren’t stored on the platforms—in other words, if I missed a show, I would never see it—I was really anxious while collecting such ephemeral materials, because I was worried that I would miss something interesting. I thought about hiring a couple of assistants to help me with footage gathering, but I gave up in the end: first, we didn’t have the budget to do it, but more importantly I had to watch the shows by myself, as this was already the very first step of the editing process. Whose show to watch at the moment was already a selection.
What kind of people are doing live-streaming?
It can be anyone, really. I don’t think there’s a certain category or group, and I don’t think we should put certain labels on streaming anchors. This streaming community is very diverse. Before watching the shows I had similar questions as well, and I thought most of the anchors were youngsters. But after I watched the shows, very soon I realized I was wrong. The anchors are at different ages and from distinctive backgrounds and from all over China: there are retired seniors trying to find someone to talk to, rich teenagers showing off luxurious cars, farmers selling produce in their remote villages, etc. They are all different people. I don’t think we should categorize them. It can be anyone, you or me.
How did you decide whom to follow? The anchors you chose are in quite difficult social situations, which they describe and about which they are asked. Can you also describe how they are paid, and how much? Are there also payments by the platform via commercials?
The most important criterion for me to decide whom to follow is personality. I’d say I prefer to follow anchors who have a strong personality—those who are willing to share their personal stories with others regardless of what others would think of them, those who can be direct and straightforward when interacting with their audience instead of flattering them, and those who stay strong in tough times. Most of the anchors in the film are in situations that are not perfect, not ideal, but there are a lot of positive vibes. I really wanted to show these to the audience, who the anchors are, how they make a living, how they find a way out, not just how miserable their lives could be.
How eagerly they wanted to use this live-streaming medium to connect with other people is another criterion. Most people have an actual world around them; they have friends they can hang out with, people they can talk to. But the anchors in my film have nobody to talk to. Those with disabilities struggle with face-to-face interaction. Those who are stuck in menial and dead-end jobs, like the seamstress—she has to work 29 days a month in a countryside factory, and has no access to the other parts of the world. So live-streaming has become an integral part of their lives, and they use it to gather together with others, to get connected with like-minded people.
Moreover, as anchors performing in front of the camera, the extent to which they could be themselves while live-streaming was also a criterion. I didn’t want to focus on those who simply try to entertain the audience. The anchors in my film are more or less willing to share real aspects of their lives with others, with strangers whom they will never meet offline.
As for the reward system—besides live comments (known as “bullets” in Chinese), the audience can also send virtual gifts to the anchors when watching the shows, such as rockets or planes. And the anchors later can redeem these virtual gifts for real money. Famous streaming anchors or Internet celebrities can earn millions of Chinese yuan in months.
However, most of the anchors in my film don’t make money from live-streaming. There are one or two who are popular and have a great number of fans, but the others didn’t earn any money from doing it. When I put together a rough cut, some of the anchors had already stopped streaming because fans no longer watched their shows.
After watching the shows for a couple of months, I realized I had no interest in examining the live-streaming craze. I’m not interested in how the industry operates, how to make money for it. What intrigued me most is the digital hangouts formed in the cyberspace. Such hangouts are crucial for people who are less socially active in real life. They’re in search of companionship in the virtual streaming community, even though such friendship might not last long.
To what extent do people exhibit their lives?
In the live-streaming industry, most anchors are producing entertainment shows, for instance youngsters streaming themselves playing video games, or young girls singing, dancing, or just having a meal in front of the camera. They are trained by professional agents and companies, and they know how to perform, how to attract attention.
But then there’s a relatively small number of people who would like to share real aspects of their lives with others. They’re still performing, but they’re also being themselves. As to how much these anchors would like to share their lives, I think it really depends on who the person is. Some are more willing to share their own stories, and they don’t mind talking about their personal journey, while some are more hesitatant. Some are more chatty, and they enthusiastically engage with the viewers who send out live comments, while some just quietly film themselves doing their daily routines, like working in a factory or construction site, doing grocery in spare time, etc. You could also find people who share their private life with others, like streaming in one’s bedroom, or introducing one’s kid(s) and other family members to the audience.
Although anchors use fake Internet names, some of them don’t mask their real identity online. They like to share their inner thoughts with others. But I do think all the anchors are essentially performers. They know they’re performing in front of their own camera, and they choose their online persona.
How would you describe your relationship to the ones you selected? Did you chat with them, or did you have any personal contact with the people you “met“ by seeing their live streams?
Of course I chatted with them, because I was curious about them, and I wanted to know more about them. And some of them were curious about me and this film as well, so they asked me questions. I just decided to not include our interaction in the film. I think our relationship is very special: although we still haven’t met each other in person, we spent hundreds of hours together on the Internet. I know a lot about their daily routine, their personal preference in food, music, and many other things. And with some of them, we know each other’s real name. And most importantly, although the showrooms are virtual, the shared emotions and experiences are real.
However, sometimes I still wonder: do I really know this person I’ve watched every day on screen for months? Even though we spent a lot of time together online and I know many things about this person, like where he is, where he comes from, what he does for living, what his home looks like, when he gets up and sleeps, etc. But do I really know him? Also, if he deletes the streaming account, then he would easily disappear. So I think it’s a very special relationship: it’s intimate, personal, yet fragile.
What forms of social interactivity between the live-streamers and their followers did you observe? They chat, they follow, they give donations; what else?
First, it’s not donation. I think sending virtual gifts is more like “rewarding”—viewers send out gifts to reward streaming anchors, to show their fondness and support.
Given that live-streaming creates real-time content and instant interaction, it has become a popular gathering place where masses of Chinese netizens can chat and get to know each other. In this virtual community, physical distance and time difference is no longer important, as you can instantaneously experience what others are experiencing, regardless of where you are and which time zone you are in. While watching the show, you would have a strong sense of “being” in that place, in that time, with them. Although such “togetherness” is virtual, the experience is so real. I think that live-streaming fosters a new form of intimacy in this digitally connected world.
What do you think is the difference in telling personal stories via live stream? In whiat way is technology shaping the way people express themselves?
Live-streaming provides us with an easy and convenient way to connect with others. People who would never cross paths in the real world are now connected in virtual showrooms and interact in real-time, and you can instantaneously experience what others are experiencing. Such digital hangouts are becoming unexpectedly crucial for those craving for social connection but feeling isolated in real, offline, life. Some are them are afraid of in-person communication, and some are stuck in menial dead-end jobs and only have limited access to the outside world. But now with live-streaming they finally find an entrance, and find their own place. Live-streaming and this kind of virtual interaction has become an integral part of of their lives. Some of them mentioned during the show that it’s more comfortable to talk to a screen instead of faces. I think the screen protects them, in a way. This is particularly true for those who struggle with in-person encounters because of their disability or identity. It’s with live-streaming that they find a community, as well as the sense of being seen.
Can you tell us a bit about the political implications of such a form of personal expression? In your movie there are quite a lot of levels of critique of the social situation. How does regulation work? Since everything is happening live, censorship would have to act in different ways.
I don’t think there’s any political implication in this kind of personal expression, as those anchors don’t have any political claim, and they don’t have any political agenda to put forward. They aren’t using this medium to criticize any social issues.
What they try to do is just to share their personal experience and story with others. Some of them aren’t afraid of showing real aspects of their lives, even though they are in situations that are tough and difficult. They just try to share their everyday life, and by doing so they bring everyday-life issues to the screen, some of which are so-called “social issues”. But I think we shouldn’t overinterpret what the anchors do or say.
As for how to regulate live-streaming content, each showroom has a couple of “managers”. The anchor can name a few of his audience or fans as the manager, and the platform can also assign a manager. The managers oversee the activities being broadcasted online and the content of the shows. There is also a set of regulations and rules. Some are just common sense, like no porn, no violence. But the control for gray zones is getting more strict: for instance, shows of women eating bananas seductively have been banned since late 2016. The regulations are constantly being updated and revised. Also, anchors are well informed about what they can and cannot do while live-streaming. If they violate the regulations, their show would be stopped immediately, and they would receive warnings or penalties, and sometimes their account would be shut down permanently.
In some clips “trolls” are mentioned and reality of the persons present are questioned ; can you tell us a what you know about this?
I actually didn’t meet many trolls while collecting the footage. Many anchors just try to ignore them. As the anchors said, if you responded, the trolls would keep arguing, harassing, or provoking you, so the best solution is to ignore their presence. I think these anchors are really brave and strong. Such disturbing comments might bring tremendous stress and anxiety to anyone, but they seem to know how to handle it properly.
I think that cyber violence is a real problem—the fact that it happens in a virtual space doesn’t make it less real. It’s a growing threat, and it can be easily found in many different places on the Internet. ~ot just during live-streaming, but also on Facebook on Twitter—it’s almost everywhere in cyberspace. And it’s just as damaging as any other kind of physical violence. It’s a serious issue that hasn’t gotten enough attention.
During the editing process of your film, what was the communication between you and the people you selected for the movie. Do they know about your project, and did they watch the film?
After I had a rough cut, I started to approach the anchors whose shows I wanted to include in the film. Some of them were very open to what I’m doing and didn’t ask anything; some were more curious and they asked me what this film was about, what the story would be. And some of them wanted me to send them the clip that I’m going to include in the film, so I sent it back to them. I hope that in the future we could organize a screening of the film in China, so that they could watch the film in a movie theater. It might be a bit difficult, as they live in different parts of China.
By recording, clipping, editing, and assembling the footage for your film, you create a new, additional narrative. How did you do that and how would you describe your role?
The biggest challenge in making this film was the editing. At the beginning I didn’t have a clear idea about how the film would look, and I was open to different possibilities. But then I made two decisions: first, I didn’t want to use any professional cameraperson for the shooting, and second, I didn’t want to focus on any individual or certain group of people in the film, because live-streaming is a craze that involves millions of Chinese netizens, and it unfolds itself through the viewpoints of different people from different backgrounds from all over China. The anchors are keen on filming their lives; when I watched the shows, I saw vivid personalities. So I wanted to make a group portrait, and the lives of the anchors unfolds through their own points of view.
Then I spent a lot of time watching the shows. I encountered many interesting people, and I became very intrigued by the medium itself and the companionship formed in this virtual community. I also found it was very interesting to look at the mundane daily life of those anchors, and how the mundane sometimes could appear beautiful and mysterious. So the focus of the film gradually emerged.
The film’s narrative evolves through the juxtaposition of diverse moments of live-streaming; the experiences of different individuals who have never met in person are put into a dialogue. I tried to keep the narrative as loose and open as possible. I didn’t want to impose a storyline, or use editing to impose drama to the film. I’m more fascinated by the idea of bringing an experience to the audience, instead of creating a story. I think it’d be great if people could interpret or perceive a film in different ways, and wouldn’t always get the same answer or idea from a film.
Filmmaking for me is a way to interact with the world. What I present in the film is always my point of view on the people, events, and places that I encountered. And these encounters also have impacts on myself, on my perspective.
Why Present.Perfect. and What Has Been Will Be, What Will Be Has Been
First, present perfect is a time tense, and it indicates a link between the past and the present, and this relationship is something essential in cinema. I’m fascinated by the idea of creating a sense of liveness and a sense of real time passing in my films, especially with the use of duration and long takes. But right after the recording is done, the footage becomes something that has already happened; it’s not the present anymore.
Live-streaming footage has a strong sense of being at the present. What this medium creates is real-time content and instant interaction. That’s why I didn’t consider it as found footage while making this film, because what I was confronted with was not an archive but real-time happenings. However, after the film is finished and finally projected on a big screen, those streaming footage are no longer merely streaming footage. They become what has been, as well as a part of our memory.
As for “perfect”, it’s Chinese Internet slang actually. There’s no change in its meaning though. It can be used in the same way as “excellent,” “awesome,” but in Chinese we normally won’t say “perfect” in this context. Then it became very popular on the Internet after a famous TV anchor used it in her talk show. And that’s why the street dancer always said “Perfect. Thank you” after his shows.
Although the anchors in my film are in situations that are not perfect, they try their best to cope with the difficulties, and they endeavor to have a better life. The present is perfect, as long as you’re embracing the imperfectness.
As for the title of the video installation What Has Been Will Be, What Will Be Has Been, which is the sister project of Present.perfect., it’s just like an additional note. What has been might not always be this way, or vice versa. While cinema and live-streaming emphasize temporality, life itself is like a continuously running river, and reality is something that is never static.
Can you tell me a bit about the importance and meaning of time in this special live-stream context in relation to your work as a filmmaker?
Cinema is inherently a time-image. One can easily recount a film with no actors, music, or dialogue, but one cannot conceive of a film with no sense of time passing through the shots and the film. For me, cinema is more about the time and space built through image and sound, rather than stories.
There are always multiple layers of time in cinema: the time in which all the actions or events take place, i.e. the time when the image and sound is recorded, no matter whether it’s fiction or documentary; the time that the filmmaker intends to construct in the film—this the most elastic, as it can be set in any time, 100 bc or 2199 ad, and condensed, extended, or distorted at the filmmaker’s will.
And Im always interested in duration. So the exploration of time in Present.Perfect. is not only about the complex relationship between past and present, but also about duration. That’s one of the reasons that I didn’t cut the footage that much. And in my previous film, Another Year I also used long takes to document the dinners of a three-generation Chinese family. I think long takes and duration allows life to unfold in its own rhythm, without too much interruption, and the poetry of the mundane, of the ordinary is thus revealed with the passage of time.
Are you still following some of the people you encountered online?
Yes, I still follow some of them, and occasionally I would watch their shows, simply because I’m curious about how they’re doing. After I spent a lot of time with them online, I feel it becomes a routine in my life.
Do you already see new forms of communication that are going to take the place of live-streaming?
There still are a lot of people who live-stream, but another new form of medium has already emerged and become very popular among netizens. The most popular platform (or app) of this kind is called “抖音” or TikTok. It’s short-form mobile videos. So people can film their lives or anything they want to share, and edit the footage easily by using this service, then they upload the edited videos online. Some of the anchors in my film have already switched to this new form of communication.