Top of the Docs #30 – ‘Present.Perfect.’ (2019)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. For August, we will be looking at documentaries that use a digital filmmaking process!

An industry that has not only seen a boom in recent years, but one that has only started being taken seriously in the last decade, is vlogging. Vloggers tend to post videos of themselves, or stream themselves live online, talking about their day to day, and doing anything from eating with their audience, to getting ready for work, to dancing for their viewers. It is a term that encapsulates a wide variety of creators and their styles. In the West, creators like David Dobrik and Markiplier bring in a massive audience on YouTube, taking in thousands of views. This, however, is minor compared to the popularity of live streaming in China, something which Present.Perfect. explores to fascinating effect.

Zhu Shengze’s Present.Perfect. throws you in at the deep end, the film acts almost as a clip compilation film, curating various videos from a number of creators, from a street dancer, to a crane driver, to a boy who eats live worms. The streaming platform takes some getting used to, with comments rocketing across the screen as “bullets,” and rewards that can be cashed IRL. In this sense, the platform has more in common with Twitch than it does with YouTube, the former being known predominantly as a streaming platform.

Distilled from more than 800 hours of footage, Zhu Shengze manages to pull together a portrait not only of the popularity of streaming in China – something which over 422million participate – but also in its importance to society. Chinese censorship is clamping down, and so being apolitical whilst streaming is a must. Despite this, Zhu Shengze, through carefully selecting the streamers that we follow throughout the film, footage of their environments, jobs, and means of survival, manages to create a deeply political film about the ways in which even the most explicitly apolitical acts can, when pulled together with others become political.

Present.Perfect. also addresses the dangers of a crowded market, especially when the product in demand is essentially content from your life. Streamers are extremely open in the film, tantamount to exhibitionist, performing sometimes degrading or even upsetting acts in attempt to keep their audience’s attention. It is a film that manages to capture the dangers of this new industry we find ourselves engaging with by simply laying out the content it produces in front of us. By focusing solely on the Chinese industry, Zhu Shengze brings up questions of censorship and the shortcomings of contemporary China, as well as bringing western viewers a streaming experience completely alien to their own.

Zhu Shengze brings us a documentary that takes the clip compilation to new heights with her eccentric, extreme, and timely documentary. When we see films made about internet culture, they are so often rooted in the west’s experience of the web. Present.Perfect. is refreshing in this sense and provides brilliant critical insight into the way in which streaming can act almost as a mirror into a society. With the recent criticism of TikTok for its alleged data mining, seemingly for being an app of Chinese origin, it would perhaps be interesting to see how western society would look were the same mirror held up to it.

Trailer for Present.Perfect.

Header image courtesy of IFFR.