Zhu Shengze is a Chinese documentary filmmaker, producer, cinematographer and editor. She co-founded production company Burn the Film with visual artist and filmmaker Yang Zhengfan and has produced several of his works, such as Distant and Where Are You Going. Examining the margins of Chinese society, Zhu's first film Xu jiao (Out of Focus) premiered at France's prestigious Cinéma du Réel documentary festival; her second film You yi nian (Another Year) won Best Film Award at Switzerland's Visions du Réel, as well as the Grand Prize at Montreal International Documentary Festival.
Zhu's third documentary Present.Perfect. screened its world premiere at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it won Best Film in Tiger Competition. In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Zhu discusses intimacy in virtual communities, cinema as a time-image, self-censorship and her next project.
FILMATIQUE: Compiled from several hundred hours of live-streaming footage, Present.Perfect. is a particularly post-modern meditation on the fragmented nature of individual and collective identity in the technological age. What of live-streaming originally resonated with you and how did you decide to develop it in to a feature project?
ZHU SHENGZE: A tragic incident happened in the fall of 2017— a young man at his 20s, who was streaming a stunt on the top of a skyscraper, fell to his death. I was astounded when I first heard about it. I mean, why people would risk their lives live-streaming? I started watching the shows and soon encountered many strange, bizarre, or extreme activities on streaming platforms, eg. men dancing with their upper body naked on a frozen lake to rock music, a man eating live worms with yogurt, etc.
But after a couple of months I was immune to this kind of show, which was just trying to entertain the audience. The tricks these anchors used, the jokes they told, and the songs they played were similar; they were no longer interesting to me.
Instead, I became more and more fascinated by the form of live-streaming itself— instant interaction and real-time content. Everything you watch takes place in real-time; it's possible to interact with others instantaneously, regardless of where you are and what time zone it is.
So my focus gradually shifted to the digital hangouts and virtual togetherness formed through live-streaming, especially after I found out that there are a large number of anchors who don't really care about how many fans they have or how much money they could earn streaming their lives. What motivates them to turn on the camera is the ease of connecting with like-minded people, and what they cherish most in the cyberspace is a companionship they could hardly find in the real world. Of course, this number is tiny compared to the enormous amount of people enticed by fame and fortune in the live-streaming industry, who aspire to be 'internet celebrities.'
FLMTQ: While originating in China, you have stated that you recorded this live-streaming footage and constructed the actual film in Chicago. Can you briefly discuss your process of making Present.Perfect.; what were your biggest challenges?
ZS: I decided at the very beginning that there will be no professional cameraperson involved in the making of this film because every anchor is the DoP of their own shows, and some of them are actually very skilled. So as long as I had the internet I could watch and record the shows, regardless of where I was. Physical distance is not important in this virtual community.
The challenges are, first, whose show should I watch at the moment, whether should I record it or not, and whom should I follow in the long term. These streaming shows aren't stored on the platforms. In other words, if I missed a show, I would never see it. So I was very anxious while watching and recording the shows, because I was worried that I would miss something interesting.
Then, it was really hard to select and compile the footage— the editing was the most time-consuming process and the biggest challenge. It took months for me to have the structure of the film in my mind. I had to be very familiar with the footage, so that I knew how to construct the film. I always took notes while watching the shows, and transcribed all the footage I thought was interesting and could be used in the film.
The editing and the recording process actually took place simultaneously. Whose show should I watch at the moment was already a selection. The more footage I collected, the clearer I knew how should I construct the film.
FLMTQ: André Bazin famously theorized the ontological nature of cinema as manipulating the spectator's relationship with time. The image is a trace of a present that has passed: a presence that is absent, but also present as image. This paradox is staged explicitly in Present.Perfect., from the use of "live" footage re-assembled into a new temporality to the film's title itself. How do you conceive of time in Present.Perfect.?
ZS: Cinema is inherently a time-image. One can easily recount a film with no actors, music, or dialogue, but one cannot conceive of a cinematic work 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.
And I'm always interested in duration. So the exploration of time in Present.Perfect. is not only about the complex relationship between past and present (as the title itself indicates), but also about duration. That's one of the reasons that I didn't cut the footage that much.
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 recored (whether fiction or documentary); the time that the filmmaker intends to construct in the film— this the most elastic as it can be set to any time, 150 BC or 2099 AD, and condensed, extended, or distorted at the filmmaker's will.
Time in Present.Perfect. is actually simple, as it focuses on the relationship between past and present. Films such as Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel are much more complicated explorations of the nature of time.
FLMTQ: The film's narrative evolves through the juxtaposition of diverse moments of live-streaming; via montage, the experiences of individuals who never have and perhaps never will meet are put into conversation. The film thus film offers new avenues of communication. How do you believe that live-streaming can foster new forms of intimacy in an increasingly atomized society?
ZS: Live-streaming and the internet in general provide a gathering place; people can chat and get to know each other in a virtual space even though they will probably never meet offline. The companionship formed in virtual showrooms is more important for those who struggle with face-to-face interaction, those less socially active in the real world. It seems that, sometimes, people enjoy their lives much more in virtual society than in the real one. Although the showrooms exist virtually, the shared emotions and feelings are real.
Such friendships might not last long— just like live-streaming itself, which is doomed to be replaced by other forms of interaction and communication with the development of new technologies, but at least it brings profound warmth to these lonely hearts at the moment.
FLMTQ: Unlike the West, live-streaming is often subject to censorship in China. What are the more interesting activities considered taboo by the Chinese cultural authorities, and to what extent do you believe that what the spectator does not (or cannot) see informs our understanding of contemporary Chinese society?
ZS: It's really hard to say what is considered taboo because the regulations are constantly changing. Things that are allowed today might be banned tomorrow. One interesting activity considered taboo, for instance, is women seductively eating bananas.
Although streaming anchors can choose their online persona and internet names, they must register the streaming account with their real time and citizen ID number, and their online behaviors are strictly regulated. The anchors know what they can't or shouldn't do.
Besides, the anchors are essentially performers. They are more or less performing in front of their own camera, and they want to be adored by the audience. So what the spectator cannot see or does not see, is not only about the taboos or censorship, but also about self-censorship, as well as human nature.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
ZS: I'm working on a project about the urban and natural landscape along a river in my hometown Wuhan, and the interaction between such space and its residents.
Interview by Ursula Grisham Head Curator, Filmatique