Before authorities cracked down in June, 2017, over 400 million customers watched live streaming in China, primarily on three internet sites: douyu.com; huya.com; and panda.tv. (According to Variety, panda.tv closed in March, 2019.) Live streaming in China resembles amateur YouTube broadcasts here, with a slightly different vocabulary. In China “anchors” host “showrooms,” or channels, and transmit “bullets” to their followers.
Documentary filmmaker Shengze Zhu (Another Year, 2016) screened hundr of hours of footage for Present.Perfect. What starts as a survey of live streaming narrows down to focus on a handful of anchors, including a seamstress assembling underwear in a clothing factory; a dancer trying to build a career with street performances; an accident victim whose face has been disfigured in a fire; a disabled man who films himself on public sidewalks and in his home; and a thirty-year-old who never matured sexually. They speak about themselves and answer questions about their lives. Like verité documentaries, Zhu adds nothing to the footage she recorded: no interviews, graphics, or identifying titles. She divides Present.Perfect into four chapters, and builds a narrative through juxtaposing anchors’ broadcasts.
Zhu: I wasn’t familiar with live streaming before I started. I 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 in China concerning a young man in his twenties who live-streamed himself on the roof of various buildings. Once, he was doing stunts at the top of a skyscraper in Changsha city, and fell to his death. That 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. The virtual streaming community is just like this—it unfolds itself through the lenses of different people from distinctive backgrounds. That’s why I don’t consider this found footage, even though the footage is from the internet and there is no professional cameraperson involved. For me it’s more like a film shot by many different people from across China.
Zhu: At the beginning I was just randomly watching shows. I didn’t know whom to follow, what to watch. So I just watched shows on different platforms, following anchors I liked. I probably subscribed to a few hundr of 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. I spent more than 10 hours a day—sometimes 12 or 15 hours—hanging out with the anchors on the internet. I lived on the screens for months, and I felt I was with them, the experience was so real. The more time I spent with them, the clearer I knew whom I should follow, as I got to know their routines, styles and personalities. I’d say a strong personality is the most important criteria for me to choose the anchors.
Zhu: Actually, most of them they don’t. In China there are hundr of thousands of streaming anchors. Most of them do want to become stars, like “Internet celebrities,” to earn money. But after a couple of months I realized I didn’t want to focus on that group. I’m not that interested in the live-streaming “craze,” how the industry operates, how to make money from it.
I found out that live-streaming also provides a popular gathering place for mass of Chinese netizens. Such digital hangouts are crucial for people who are less socially active in real life. It’s not fame or fortune that motivates them to share their lives, but simply the ease of getting connected with like-minded people. I became very interested in this group. They may be performing in front of cameras, but they are also trying to share the most personal or intimate moments of their lives with strangers, people they will never meet off-line, simply because they have nobody to talk to in the actual world around them. They’re in search of a companionship, even though such friendship might not last long.
Of the anchors in my film, except for one or two, most of them didn’t earn any money and don’t have a lot of fans. When I put together a rough cut, some of the anchors had already stopped streaming because fans no longer watched their shows.
Zhu: I guess most anchors imagine at the beginning they will be stars. They want to be liked by as many people as possible. They probably heard success stories of “internet celebrities,” and they perhaps want to be one of them. But it’s very hard to duplicate someone’s success, so eventually they give up. But for some, live streaming is just a way to connect to other people.
Zhu: Right, that’s why live streaming is so important for them. They use it to gather together with others, to get connected. That was intriguing to me. Most people have an actual world around them, they have friends that they can hang out with, people that they can talk to. But the anchors in my film have nobody to talk to. Those with disabilities are afraid of in-person encounters. One of the anchors once explained during the show that it’s just easier and more comfortable for him to talk to the screen, instead of faces. I think the screen protects them, in a way.
Even those without disabilities appear to struggle to communicate. Some are stuck in menial and dead-end jobs. The internet seems to be the only entrance for them to access the outside world. For example, the girl who works in the underwear factory, she’s very pretty and outgoing. But because she works in a factory located in a small town, and because she has to work 29 days a month, her actual world is quite small and isolated. So she uses live streaming to make friends.
Zhu: Not during the recording process. I did chat with them and asked them questions, because I was curious and wanted to know more about them. But eventually I didn’t record my interactions with them. I thought about using the interactions between me and them as the ending of the film. I even thought about doing my own show and inviting the anchors to watch it and interact with me. But at the end, I didn’t do it, because I felt such calculated and designed content wouldn’t fit in.
Zhu: No, not the whole film. Some of them were curious about the clips I was including so I sent those to them. I haven’t showed them the whole film yet because there are no screenings scheduled in China.
Zhu: Yes and no. On one hand, all the footage in the film is already censored or self-censored. There are a set of regulations and rules about live streaming in China. Anchors clearly know what they can and cannot do, and each showroom has managers who oversee the activities being broadcasted online. It’s already very clean, it’s not something sensitive. On the other hand, the problem with the censorship of cinema in China is that you never know. Sometimes you don’t know the criteria and you don’t know what they don’t like. So I have no idea whether this film can pass the censors. In recent years the process to receive an approval for a film is also getting more and more complicated.
Zhu: Live streaming is a new form of medium and a new industry. Six years ago it barely existed in China. So when it first emerged, nobody knew the power of it, or its potential influence. Based on what I’ve learned from the press and users, at first it was more open—a lot of freestyle postings, shows that were in the gray zone of adult content, eye-catching activities. And, of course, from the beginning political discussion is absolutely not allowed. So it’s all about entertainment: dancing, singing, fashion, playing video games, things like that. But after live streaming became extremely popular in China and created millions of dollars of revenue, it caught the attention of authorities. So regulations and laws came into effect after 2016.
Now anchors have a better idea about what they can and cannot do online. Some regulations are just common sense, like no porn. But the control for gray zones is getting more strict; for instance, shows of women who eat bananas seductively are banned. There are new regulations for smoking and profanity. Also, now anchors must register streaming account with their real name and citizen ID number.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that live streaming is a new form of media. Often innovation means going back to zero, back to the most basic forms of cinema. The anchors are limited by what they can do with the camera, and they aren’t really able to edit.
Zhu: Well, they’re not trained filmmakers or cinematographers. It’s based on instinct in a way. They had no idea what aperture is or how to compose and frame an image. At times they are very creative, they can find interesting angles. But I don’t think they even considered details like that, they were just trying to show something that people normally would not see. This way they easily attracted more viewers. And of course they constantly interact or communicate with the audience. Sometimes when they chose a bad angle, the audience would tell them immediately, “Can you move the camera to the left? Can you show me this? Can you talk slower?” And because they don’t know the rules, they can be very creative. Sometimes the result is surprisingly impressive.
Zhu: I wasn’t interested in those anchors who are merely performing, singing, dancing, playing games—trying to amuse the audience to death. They have a lot of fans and they earn a lot money from it, but that’s all they were doing. You don’t get to know them. They hide their stories and real emotions. Some of them have agents or companies that arrange everything for them. They receive training, and learn how to attract more fans.
That’s why I chose these other anchors. I wanted to focus on people who could show real aspects of their lives in front of the camera, people who are eager to share. Besides, the ways or styles that the anchors chose to film themselves more or less demonstrate who they are. When I watch their shows, I see vivid personalities, and I see images imbued with a strong sense of “aliveness.” It’s indeed original and authentic.
Zhu: 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—it’s completely made up of shows filmed and shared by anchors themselves. So at the beginning I thought, “OK, I don’t want to use any professional cameraperson for the shooting, and I shouldn’t focus on any individual or certain group of people in the film. I want to make something like a group portrait, one that I hope is as diverse as possible.”
In terms of structure, I’m not very interested in storytelling in filmmaking; instead, I’m more fascinated by the idea of bringing an experience to the audience. The raw and candid footage filmed by the anchors themselves creates a strong sense of “being” at that place, at that time, with them. Physical distance and time differences are not important anymore. While they were filming, most of them were just showing their daily routines. There wasn’t anything dramatic, no big events, just ordinary life. But I found it was very interesting to look at the mundane, and how the mundane sometimes could appear beautiful and mysterious. That’s why I don’t want to impose a storyline, or use editing to impose drama to the film, because while I was recording, I didn’t encounter any of these things. Nothing too dramatic happened. The only exception probably is the guy who was thirty but looks like a kid. He moved to another city and tried to start a new life. This is why the narrative of the film in general is very open. Not many plots, no concrete storyline, and no clear beginning or ending to the anchors’ stories.
Zhu: Because I wanted to control the rhythm of film. I guess the audience would easily get lost if they watch a two-hour, non-narrative film without protagonists. By using chapters, the audience can have some small breaks and then keep watching. I didn’t give chapter titles because I didn’t want to impose a theme or focus on them.
Filmmaker: That sounds very persuasive, but in the first chapter especially you assemble a complex visual montage of different locations, from constructions sites to farming to underwater diving to the cockpit of an airplane. There’s a flow to the images that is very sophisticated, very involving.
Zhu: That chapter serves as an introduction, not just to the film but to live streaming as a whole. It’s different from the other parts. There are no clear human figures, you either see them with masks on or from a distance. Also there’s no dialogue in this chapter. I wanted to show at the very beginning how skilled and creative these anchors can be. It serves as a metaphor as well, because in this chapter the people are all working. It’s like each individual serves as part of one giant machine, which is our society. Everyone has a role, and tries to find his or her own place in the society.
Zhu: Yeah, of course there’s a narrative. Maybe you can call it a kind of open and loose narrative. There’s something that I want to say, something I want to express—but through audio-visual language, rather than verbal language. So of course there’s a narrative in that sense, it’s just not a story or plot. I like the idea that people can interpret or perceive a film in different ways, and they won’t always get the same answer or idea from a film.
Zhu: Haha, I quite like her as well. She’s very straightforward and direct. If she doesn’t like someone, she would just say it. Unlike many anchors they would just ignore it or pretend they don’t care.
I think each time you see the anchors, you get to know them more, your knowledge about them accumulates as you watch the film. My approach or preference is to show only part of their lives. I won’t tell you clearly who she is and what she’s going to do. I tried to hide some information, and of course the anchors themselves hide some information as well. They won’t share everything. So viewers actually have to use their own imagination to weave together a picture of the anchors, which leaves a more open interpretation of the anchors and live-streaming in general.
I’m more interested in this way of portraying the lives of other people. You see their faces, their expressions, their gestures, and you also see the environment surrounding them. This already gives enough information to the audience instead of having the character tell a story about himself or herself. So you don’t see the seamstress’s past, but by watching her and listening to her you get an idea of what it was like.
Shengze Zhu: I don’t consider it a departure. I know the form is very different. In Another Year we carefully designed the composition of each frame, and we spent lots of time on lighting. In Present.Perfect the image is more low-res, and there’s nothing I can do with the composition or lighting. Also, there’s a lot of camera movement here, whereas in my previous films, the camera is more static. But I think they’re similar in a way because I’m still interested in people who live on the margins of Chinese society, people whose voices are often overlooked by mainstream cinema or media. Also, I’m always interested in seeing the world through the eyes of others. For my first film [Out of Focus] in 2014, I gave a group of children cameras, and then I incorporated their photos into the film.
Filmmaker: It’s really tough to put together a convincing portrait using isolated, disconnected clips. But you found material in Present.Perfect that makes viewers care about these anchors, without resorting to typical narrative devices.
Zhu: It’s definitely not easy. I had to know very clearly what I want, and what I don’t want.
I don’t want people to feel sorry for these anchors, and also I don’t think the anchors want viewers to feel sorry for them. The anchors in my film, almost all of them are in situations that are not perfect, that are instead very difficult and tough. But they have strong personalities, and there are a lot of positive vibes, as they said. They have happy moments that they are excited to share with others, even though they will never meet these people offline. 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.
Loneliness, alienation, isolation—these are what I really want to say in the film. But I don’t want viewers to just think, oh, those anchors in the film are so lonely. Because the fans who watched the shows are very lonely as well. They also spent hours watching and talking to the anchors. That’s why I don’t consider the relationship between anchors and their fans as “being watched” and “watching.” Instead, it’s more about the interaction, about the digital hangouts and virtual togetherness formed in the cyberspace. I think loneliness is something that’s very common nowadays. Although the Internet provides us an easy and convenient way to connect, to make friends, I think it also makes us feel lonelier than ever.
By making this film, I got to know many different people, and we spent hundr of hours together in the cyberspace, but sometimes I still wonder: do I really know this guy that I’ve watched every day on screen for months? I know where he is, where he comes from, what he does for living, what his home looks like, when he gets up and sleeps, the songs he likes, the food he doesn’t like, etc… but do I really know him?