Shengze Zhu’s IFFR 2019 Tiger Award winner looks at the culture of live-streaming in China. Composed entirely of found footage and presented in black and white to lend visual consistency, the film raises important questions about the politics of viewership, the documentary form’s complex ties to reality and about human relationships in a digitally connected world.
Present.Perfect., as its title announces and by its director’s own admission, is interested in exploring the relationship of the past to the present. On the one hand, it is a collection of live-streamed videos which are all about instant connection and gratification. The videos show ‘anchors’ going about their humdrum lives, talking about themselves, answering questions that their viewers pose to them live in the form of ‘bullets’ and accepting virtual gifts which can be cashed in the real world.
However, their present-ness is also complicated by the fact that they are being shown to larger audiences as a film at a time when the activities and conversations they captured are already in the past and especially by the information that after the explosion that the live-streaming industry witnessed in 2017, strict censorship came into play in China and led to the closing down of many of these virtual showrooms and the disappearance of their makers from the digital world.
The film’s standing as a documentary and its relationship to reality are similarly nuanced. At one level, it involves people documenting their own lives. Through long pauses for instance where nothing much happens or ones in which they go off camera, these people are recording the inactivity and boredom of their days in real-time, presenting authentic snapshots of their lives, surroundings and circumstances. But this is also a reality which has been cut, arranged and amalgamated and now conveys, even with its style of minimal intervention, the filmmaker’s very subjective point of view.
The ease of virtual communication which acts as a filter, enabling people to reach out to those they would not have otherwise been able to communicate with in the real world, is one of the central concerns of the film. Eschewing more popular anchors, Zhu selected people whose shows, although overtly sunny and cheerful, often hinted at the harsher realities of their lives. These are economically and socially marginalized people, some with disabilities and most living in isolated spaces in the countryside, with very little human interaction in their day-to-day lives.
There is the single mother who toils in a garment factory all day, a pavement artist with stunted legs, a burn survivor, a girl in a wheelchair, a street dancer, a crane operator and a thirty-something man whose body and face are those of a child. While these anchors draw comfort from this form of virtual contact and acknowledgement, at times willingly sharing intimate details about their homes, jobs, children and relationships with complete strangers, there is simultaneously something deeply tragic and exploitative about their exchanges. They are often asked to dredge up painful and uncomfortable details about their wounds, privates, scars and deformities and one senses the desperation in their willingness to perform and do the subscribers’ bidding.
However, in this form of interchange, there is also a very palpable falling away of the conventional barriers of shame and discomfort. Present.Perfect. offers much that warrants discussion but its greatest strength perhaps lies in Zhu’s decision to make it. These live-streamed shows were originally made with the intention that its near-invisible makers get an avenue to be seen and heard and by choosing to make the film, Zhu has certainly ensured that.