In depth with Zhu Shengze

Making a film without leaving your desk or even holding a camera. Sounds absurd, but this is exactly how Shengze Zhu created Present.Perfect.. She collected footage of people who live stream their life on the web on a daily basis.

They candidly chat to the camera as if nothing is wrong. The man with the badly burnt face, the boy with the stunted limbs, the adult who still looks like a 12-year old boy.

To many people live streaming is a normal way of coming into contact with others.” – Zhu Shengze

Live streaming is hot in China. Particularly in rural areas, tens of thousands of people put footage of their daily lives online. Often without it being particularly interesting. “There’s a lot to do in the major cities and people often have large social networks there,”, explains Zhu Shengze. She’s talking about her film Present.Perfect.. “The rural world is much smaller, many of the streamers work at a factory six days a week and don’t even have time for their kids. Live streaming allows them to be a star in some small way.”

The stardom we see in the film is alienating. A dancer shows off his skills out in the street in front of a motorbike covered in various streaming platforms’ mobile phone cameras. His audience seems more interested in the number of phones than in his moves. A woman keeps streaming during her monotonous work at a textiles factory as if it is part of her job.

“I was super surprised by the intimate things people share online,”, says Zhu. “Streamers usually have a screen name and don’t reveal exactly where they are. But, in principle, everyone can watch them.”

Zhu Shengze was fascinated by this live streamed reality. She sought out eccentric, unusual people and recorded them. “Many of the people I picked are lonely because there is something up with them. They frighten many of the people they meet in the street. The internet provides them the opportunity to talk to others and be themselves. It’s easier to get in touch with people online than in the real world and they find support and understanding there.”

Travel from your office chair

Zhu is still square-eyed. The flashing, humming hard disks on her desk contain some 800 hours of streams. That’s not counting the stuff she watched during the research phase. She never left home to make this film and no one we see knew they were being recorded when they looked into the camera.

Present.Perfect. is more a documentary than a fiction film. “It’s exceptional for IFFR to nominate me for a Tiger,”, says Zhu, on cam herself from Chicago, where she created the whole film. Surrounded by hard disks.

Smartphones and tablets have become extensions of our limbs and senses.” – Zhu Shengze

Shu has lived in the USA since her twenties, far from her country of origin, China. “In that respect a large proportion of my life also plays out online,”, she explains. “I use my devices to stay in touch with family and friends in China. I also use the internet to keep up with developments there. For this film I digitally travelled to places in China I have never even heard of.”

Did making Present.Perfect. teach her anything? “Smartphones and tablets have become extensions of our limbs and senses.”

Photo in header: Zhu Shengze © Joke Schut