“I used to be a nobody until I discovered the Internet,” says Chinese blogger Zhou Shuguang. A citizen journalist and determined self-promoter whose efforts put him frequently at odds with his government, Zhou—who goes by the immodest nickname Zola—blurs the line between reportage and narcissism: Covering the funeral of a girl who he says was raped and murdered by a public official’s son, the amateur muckraker uses public clowning as a cover for filming the crowd. (During a visit home, his mother argues that country comes before the individual; he unsurprisingly disagrees.) Then there’s Zhang Shihe, a.k.a. Tiger Temple, who’s twice Zhou’s age and takes a literally self-effacing approach, positing online videos of effluent-choked waterways with voiceovers courtesy of his cat—on the apparently valid theory that cat videos don’t merit official censorship.
It’s not easy for critical reporting to clear China’s Great Firewall, though as Stephen T. Maing’s documentary proves, getting the message to the masses is not impossible. (Access to foreign DNS servers helps immensely, of course.) The film’s observational approach can be frustratingly vague, however, especially when it comes to what impact, if any, his subjects’ efforts have. But this dual portrait is still an engaging study of the disparate characters who are drawn to speak out when the authorities crack the whip.