It's a tiresome cliché to point out how much screens have come to dominate human eyeballs these days. With the ever-increasing velocity of megabits throughout the digital world, no other medium has held the attention of our optic nerves than online videos. The usual suspects—smartphones, YouTube, Netflix —seek to capitalize on our never-ending fascination with the moving image through online technology. However, what started as short clips in the 1990s have, in recent years, been able to record in real-time, and has given rise to the phenomenon of livestreaming, where users broadcast themselves for an audience.
Documentary filmmaker Shengze Zhu first started watching livestreaming shows from China when she heard about the 2017 story of a young man who was recording a stunt on top of a skyscraper and tragically fell to his death. She soon became fascinated by the form of livestreaming itself and recorded more than 800 hours worth of footage, molding it into the film that would become Present.Perfect.
The individuals who host these shows are known as anchors and Zhu found herself drawn to the more quotidian shows, which is reflected in the film. We follow characters that are often seen as peripheral in society. A young mother working in a garment factory, and a man whose face was disfigured by a fire feature prominently, as does a construction worker and a man with dwarfism who creates art on the street. These real-life characters express an authentic sense of intimacy through their recordings, which Zhu organises into a four part structure.
In the first section of the film she explains the concept of livestreaming and its specific context to China through on-screen text, before introducing us to the main anchors we’ll follow. The next two sections, which are the most substantial in the film, cut between these anchors. Initially we see them at the surface of their lives, showing us how the cast want to be seen, whether that is dancing in public, or making art. Gradually, Zhu’s footage begins to paint a more complex picture, giving us a peek into the challenges these anchors face. This could be something disconnected from streaming itself, and merely inferred from the footage. For instance, the young woman’s juggling of work and motherhood can be observed but is not explicitly commented on. Other difficulties that are hinted at are tied to the medium itself, such as the young dancer who appears to be struggling with online trolls in one of his clips.
The result is a film that brims with a quiet humanism, despite the (not unjustified) urge to view online phenomena with a degree of apprehension.
Although the film may seem cutting edge, livestreaming culture in China is apparently already on the wane since the implementation of the Cyber Security Law of the People's Republic of China in June 2017, which is mentioned in the opening text of the film. Article 41 requires networks to store user information within China’s borders, and can be used by the government. Last year also saw the closure of the live-streaming platform Panda TV, which had been announced in 2015 as a rival to Twitch. Meanwhile, the Beijing-based video-sharing site TikTok soared to new heights in 2019 with over 700 million downloads. As such, Present.Perfect,despite its footage being recorded less than two years ago, may already be a relic of a cultural moment that has passed.
After winning the Tiger Award at last year's International Film Festival Rotterdam for Present.Perfect, we spoke to director Shengze Zhu about what made her want to direct documentaries, audience reactions to the film, and the amateur artistry in livestreaming.
NOTEBOOK: Firstly, since we’re doing this interview over Skype, I thought I'd ask how you find communicating through a screen?
SHENGZE ZHU: Actually, I quite enjoy it because I spent my twenties moving between China and the United States. I moved to Chicago about four years ago, but my family and friends are still in China, so I just like screens no matter whether it’s a computer or a phone because it’s an important component in my life. It’s a way for me to digitally hang out with my friends and family so it brings me a lot of joy.I feel like my experience resonates with the experiences of those anchors in a way. We rely on screens to connect with other people.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve mentioned before in interviews that you have a background in photojournalism. How did career path affect your approach to the film?
ZHU: That experience is very special to me. I went to Columbia Missouri in 2010 for a photojournalism program. I was already very interested in documentary and I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I didn’t know how, so I stayed in the Photojournalism track.
That was the first time I had lived outside of my home country. I felt that everything there was different. At the same time, Columbia was a college town so there wasn’t very many Chinese [laughs]. Of course there were a lot of Chinese students, but just the whole culture was very different, which gave me a lot of inspiration. I met many interesting people.
There was one older woman who would run a post office by herself in a town with a population of 50 people. So, for me that was like “wow” because I come from Wuhan, which is the largest city in Central China, the population is more than 20 million! The difference between these two places is just tremendous.
I feel this whole experience really shaped me. Before I came to America, my parents wanted me to have a secure job. Then all of a sudden, I saw so many people with different lives from what my parents had taught me. They had totally different goals in life. It was from that moment I decided I really wanted to start making documentaries.
In terms of photojournalism, the school taught me how to tell a story through images. But I’m still constantly trying to compare the difference between telling a story through still images and video. Because with video it’s not just about the image but about sound and of course, the passage of time. Also, at school we had a lot of discussions about objectivity and how to tell stories in an objective way. For me, when you take the camera out and choose the angles, or when you choose the focus it’s really about the maker’s point of view, so how can you say that this is about objectivity.
At the time I didn’t think these discussions had much of an impact on me but when I look back, it was a very special experience.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting you bring up the maker’s perception, because the anchors are making the raw footage in your film. Do you see yourself as a fellow author or would you say your role in the film is closer to that of a curator?
ZHU: I wouldn’t say my role’s a curator’s, although it feels similar. A curator wouldn’t impose their perception on the material. For me, I have to edit the footage, and so that imposes my understanding on it. I would say it’s more like a collaboration between me and the anchors. But at the same time there were a lot of other people besides me watching these shows who would comment and sometimes asked the questions that I wanted to ask. You know, they would tell the anchor to do this and do that.
One of the first questions I asked myself was, “What is the difference between watching my film, and watching livestreaming on these platforms?” There must be something of my subjectivity in the editing of the film.
NOTEBOOK: Were you in contact with the anchors while making the film then? And have they had a chance to see it yet?
ZHU: None of them have seen the film in its entirety because there’s no public screening scheduled in China yet. I don’t want them to watch the film on their laptop or smartphone.
I did contact them, and I actually had some interactions with them while I was recording their shows. Although I didn’t include any of these interactions in the final film.
After putting together a rough cut I tried to contact them afterwards if I could find them and ask whether I can put that footage in the film. Some of them are really open, they don't really care, and some them are a bit more curious, asking, “what is this film about? What is the story? What is the theme?” And some of them even asked me to send them clips so they could check what I am going to include in the film.
There were some—one or two—who were a bit hesitant at the beginning. They didn't want me to use the footage, and I had to really sell this project to them and explain what I was doing, and in the end it was ok. But there were some people who I just couldn't find. There was this one anchor who just all of a sudden deleted his account.
NOTEBOOK: The faces of these anchors are inevitably a prominent feature in the film. And faces can be quite ambiguous. For example, a smile may be a sign of nervousness rather than of happiness. Were you hoping to lean into that ambiguity with the film?
ZHU: Yes, but not just ambiguity. I also wanted to draw attention to those subtle details, gestures, and allow different people to interpret different meanings.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that your film allows a viewer to notice those subtleties of gesture, which might otherwise be lost on them if they had viewed the same footage as a livestream?
ZHU: For me it's almost the same. For the audience it will probably be different, especially on a big screen, because I am just too familiar with the material [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: And how did you find the audience reaction to Present.Perfect in the West?
ZHU: In some countries people thought the film was very funny. They laughed a lot. But in other countries, their reactions are colder. That may just be because of cultural differences, but in general Western audiences are very interested in this phenomenon and some of them may have experience with livestreaming shows in the past but never with the kind of people we see in the film.
Even for me, before starting the film I thought livestreaming was all about young girls dancing or singing in front of their smartphones, or people playing video games. I guess those are the sorts of stereotypes people have about livestreaming. So, some audiences were really surprised to see another side to livestreaming.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think there’s a generational divide between reactions to the film?
ZHU: I mean in general, yes it does look like that but I don’t know about Western audiences. For me, another amazing thing about livestreaming in China is that there are a lot of seniors that are doing it.
Of course, young people who are very familiar with technology have to have the internet as part of their social lives, so they are definitely more familiar with this medium because they live on the screens.But for people in the older generation I don’t want to make this boundary because it then becomes another stereotype.
NOTEBOOK: I mentioned earlier that faces are a prominent feature in Present.Perfect. However, the first five minutes of the film features footage of construction sites from the perspective of a crane and factories with a minimal human presence. Why did you choose to open the film in that way?
ZHU: The opening serves as an introduction, not just to livestreaming, but to society. Of course, you don’t see any human faces, especially in the first two long takes [one is a shot of crane, and the second is of a digger demolishing a building] but those are machines operated by human beings. So, you are actually seeing what those workers are seeing. You see the scene from their perspective even though you don’t see them. That’s what interested me the most. Those two shots, visually, are just stunning to me.
In the second one of the demolitions, the camera becomes an embodiment of the machine. The way that anchor chose to put the camera is just so creative. It’s better than many professional DPs. That’s why I had to use it.
NOTEBOOK: That footage was really impressive, and I did wonder whether that was livestream footage as well, because it looked so professional.
ZHU: You know what? Some people were asking me the other day, “why do people look at those boring things for so long? Are there viewers for this?”
NOTEBOOK: On the topic of creativity, do you think this form has its own grammar. Livestreaming, with its use of long takes is somewhat reminiscent of an art film. How did watching these livestream show affect your sensibilities as an artist?
ZHU: When I first watched these shows I was really surprised by the camerawork. So fluid, so smooth, and sometimes the angles are so creative, that I had never seen before. It’s just so good and some of these anchors, I don’t think they had any professional training, so they really rely on intuition when working on livestreaming and I think that’s very precious.
Shengze Zhu's Present.Perfect is showing January 24 - February 6, 2020 at the ICA in London.