Before coming to film, Stephen Maing was working toward a mechanical engineering degree with thoughts of studying architecture. Then, he interned for a “visionary” architect in San Francisco’s Bay Area who played Flamencan guitar and fashioned his own futuristic clothes. This experience helped Maing realize the effect of personal narratives on design as well as his own interest in exploring narratives and character. Film offered him the most tangible way to explore these interests.
New Yorker Maing co-produced and edited the documentary “Lioness” (Tribeca 2008) and directed the short “Little Hearts.” He is a Sundance Institute Fellow and has received support from the MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca All Access and Good Pitch.
What it’s about: “High Tech, Low Life” is an intimate portrait of two of China’s first citizen reporters, as they travel the country reporting on censored and underreported news.
Maing says he didn’t set out to make a political film: “When I started filming with [rogue blogger] Zola I initially thought the film might even be a comedy because of his unique sense of humor. I was most struck by Tiger Temple and Zola’s curiosity about the world and willingness to take calculated risks to understand it. But how they did things was also very improvisational, following their interests and instincts, in some ways similar to how I followed my interest in them.
I’m interested in character-driven stories that unfold slowly and unexpectedly. I felt it was important that any possible politics conveyed in the film emerge through the personal choices made by the two characters. Something that doesn’t necessarily come through is that we spent quite a bit of time filming everyday routines. Over long periods of filming, that connection between their everyday personal choices and politics began to emerge.”
Maing, on the biggest challenges: “Understanding the political landscape and making sure my presence would not create difficulties for Zola or Tiger if they reported on sensitive situations. We regularly discussed how best to navigate each trip we took together. I also consulted with other journalists and filmmakers in China throughout production.
A different kind of challenge was trying to figure out how to balance traditional documentary needs like context, social issues and story development while wanting the visual language of the film to capture more intangible qualities like the atmosphere of spaces, textures, character and mood. I wanted the film to have some sort of visual poetry that would help deliver different kinds of information and create a richer experience, but didn’t get in the way of Zola and Tiger Temple’s essential story.”
Maing’s inspiration: “The documentary ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Zhao Liang, for it’s patient realism that reveals moments that teeter on the edge of absurdism. ‘Platform’ and ‘The World,’ by Jia Zhangke for their depictions of social and cultural transition in China. An unusually candid film by anthropologist Stephane Breton called ‘Them and Me,’ in which Breton documents the awkward yet practical negotiations he finds himself involved in with a group of Papua, New Guinea tribesmen he is attempting to research. Omer Fast’s 2008 Whitney Biennial video ‘The Casting,’ for how it deconstructs the idea of representation and reveals a story within a story that is mediated yet again through another re-enactment. And lastly, ‘Three Amigos,’ for its use of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase.”
Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2012 festival.
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