Director Interview: Jessica Kingdon's Ascension at Tribeca

Making its world premiere in the documentary competition program at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, Jessica Kingdon’s debut feature ASCENSION is an engrossing, and at times funny, disturbing, and cautionary portrait of the Chinese industrial complex. Filmed in 51 locations—from a plastic bottle recycling plant to a Trump hat factory to a sex doll workshop—Kingdon shows us the process of job recruitment, daily labor, and scale of work that comprises the Chinese economy. We spoke with Kingdon from her home in Brooklyn about the parallels between China and America, how the production found its subjects, and the film’s form.

Science & Film: How do you think audiences in China will react to ASCENSION differently from those in America?

Jessica Kingdon: I’m super curious to find out. In America so far, through friends and collaborators, I’ve gotten two reactions: one is, this is a mirror of America. This is showing us us through a fun-house mirror, like a magnification of what’s happening here. Then, there are people who say, this is so different from us, these workers are so disciplined and soulless. I feel more in line with the first reaction but it’s interesting to hear the second reaction too, which isn’t my intention.

In China, I think people tend to be very polite, so I haven’t heard any negative feedback from people I’ve shown it to yet. Some of the most interesting feedback I’ve gotten is because we shot in so many different types of places—factories, malls, recreational spaces—a lot of people have said, you’ve shown me a side of China I haven’t seen before. If I made the same film in America and showed it to an American audience, I think similarly a lot of Americans would be like, this is crazy, this is stuff I haven’t seen before, because most of us haven’t set foot in a factory. So it is just as eye-opening for certain Chinese audiences. But in terms of putting a value judgement on it, I’m curious to see how a Chinese audience will react.

The lazy river at the Chimelong Waterpark in Guangzhou, China, as seen in ASCENSION, directed by Jessica Kingdon. Image courtesy of Mouth Numbing Spicy Crab LLC.

S&F: How did you go about getting access to shoot in all of these disparate places?

JK: We shot in 51 locations and each one had a different story about getting access. Ultimately though, we weren’t doing anything explicitly political or critical of the Chinese government or China. If anything, this is showing China’s economic might as a global superpower, so people were open to being in this film because a lot of it could be cast in a positive light.

The expectations in China are different around who wields the power in these kinds of situations. This was exemplified when our fixer was trying to get us access to a Trump hat factory, and [the director] said no because he was worried we were going to charge him for appearing in our film. She had to convince him we wouldn’t bill him. That was very surprising to me. People at times saw our film as an opportunity for publicity. It’s not not an opportunity for publicity, but it depends on how you look at it.

Another story that jumped out: we were filming at this plastic bottle recycling factory where they turn bottles into carpets and blankets, but because it was proprietary information how they do it, they wouldn’t let us film that part. In the film, you don’t know that, but that same factory with all those plastic bottles is also the one with huge red carpets—the textile factory. After three days of shooting the CEO called us into his office for tea and he started lecturing us and getting really angry because he thought we were corporate spies trying to get their secret, because of our shooting style. He said, if you’re really a documentary crew, then where’s your host? Our fixer had to convince him. The barriers to access were always different from what I thought they would be.

Sometimes, in exchange for access, we would make promo videos for factories, which was really funny.

READ MORE: Livestreaming’s Gig Economy in China: PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE

S&F: Sort of ironic.

JK: Kind of ironic, definitely. My partner Nate has a very quintessential Midwestern American access, so the PR guy at a steel factory asked Nate if he could redo the voiceover on one of their promo videos because they had it in English read by an AI that sounded really fake, and this is for international buyers where the quality of your English is a big cache. So, Nate recorded this perfect English VO, and it was a boon for them. Later, this same guy would call us up to ask us to talk a client of his because he needed someone who could speak really good English. We were like, sure [laughs].

S&F: Was there a set of criteria you used to figure out the kinds of places where you wanted to film?

JK: I wanted to show a whole range of the abundance and scale of the industrial supply chain: From the most elemental levels, things that you wouldn’t immediately recognize like rare earth minerals which are used to create batteries for smartphones and tablets, and steel, to easily identifiable consumer objects like plastic water bottles, spray caps, and most people don’t see sex dolls on a day-to-day basis but that was taking that thought exercise to its extreme.

Also, in the way I edited the film you don’t always know what’s being made. That was intentional. I liked that because I liked feeling thrown into this universe of pure production where the end product almost doesn’t matter. A lot of the shots were selected for the aesthetic immersion of this world of production.

S&F: Yes, your style reminded me of the artist Mika Rottenberg. Also, your use of sound really amplifies that feeling of immersion.

JK: We tried to mic people as often as we could because we wanted to get that first-person sound. I wanted it to feel very visceral. There are so many moments where the sound makes the scene. Specifically, this young woman on the plastic bottle assembly line who is putting labels on, she pauses and opens up her portable thermos she brought, unscrews the lid and sips, and just hearing that sound of her unscrewing the lid for me felt really poignant and brought me into her world more. And she didn’t say anything, and a lot of times people would ask why we were miking people who weren’t talking, but I felt like having these moments of first-person sound was just as valuable. In addition to miking individual people, we took recordings of different factory machines so we could get those variations in sound and have clean audio of specific processes.

A user livestreaming to sell her product on the Chinese shopping website, as seen in ASCENSION, directed by Jessica Kingdon. Image courtesy of Mouth Numbing Spicy Crab LLC.

I did look up Mika Rottenberg by the way and people have sent her work to me before because she also shoots in Yiwu which is where a short I made a few years ago called COMMODITY CITY takes places, in the largest wholesale mall in the world. It’s the source of a lot of small, disposable consumer goods—this five-mile-long mall. I shot there in 2016 and then we went back for ASCENSION in 2019 and Yiwu itself felt totally different. It wasn’t just about having physical storefronts to sell things, it was all about livestreamers creating their own brands. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it [into the final film] and I feel sad about that. There is this intense energy where people are trying to teach each other about how to livestream to sell products more efficiently. They have these crazy ideas about how to do it like covering yourself with mud to stand out—outlandish things about how to make yourself a brand to sell things from water faucets to hair products. The conflation of an individual identity with your brand in order to capitalize on it and make money, that was super apparent in China and certainly in Yiwu that was something I noticed had changes. That is really a mirror of America as well, where everyone here is trying to be their own brand.

S&F: Were there any particular challenges making this a feature having worked in a shorter form over the years?

JK: Initially, I thought this would be a trilogy because I was trying to make something that had a more environmental focus where I would be tracing the cycle of production, consumption, and waste. But as we were pitching it, it was difficult to get funding for a series that was more experimental in sensibility like this. Somebody asked us at IFP, why don’t you turn this into a feature? And I realized that’s what I’d wanted to do all along, I just didn’t think I could have something that was such a tapestry of so many different elements in a feature doc. But when he said that it gave me the confidence to try it out and see. As I started doing it, I felt that it did make sense as a feature. Of course, there was a lot of doubt along the way wondering if I could pull it off to structure a film in this way, but as I kept shooting and editing, I felt like I could see so many different connections inside of the film, and so many different story lines, that it gave me a lot of encouragement to keep going. It was also a lot more entertaining than I had hoped for.

ASCENSION is directed, produced, edited, and filmed by Jessica Kingdon. It is also produced by Kira Simon-Kennedy and Nathan Truesdell, and filmed by Truesdell. Dan Deacon composed the original score. The film is at the Tribeca Film Festival which runs through June 20.

Cover image: Factory worker inspecting the head of a sex doll during assembly in Zhonghan City, Guangdong Province, China, as seen in ASCENSION, directed by Jessica Kingdon. Image courtesy of Mouth Numbing Spicy Crab LLC.

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