It wasn’t just a stylistic choice Jessica Kingdon and her cinematographer Nathan Truesdell were making whenever they would set the camera up in any one of the 51 locales across China that they traveled to in order to make “Ascension,” but a substantive one when they set about capturing a culture in a moment of relative stasis, caught between gradually embracing the new opportunities of an economy starting to open up to the outside world while resisting changes to the way business has been done in the country for generations. The focus would be intense and intentional, but the camera itself would be pulled back, fixed from a distance and often observing as workers move tirelessly across the frame where their labor can be appreciated even if it isn’t by the powers that be.
“The documentaries I watched when I was in my twenties were those that had that style that I was drawn to for one reason or another, I remember watching Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s “Sweetgrass” for the first time, and the Frederick Wiseman films and “Koyaanisqatsi” and Michael Glowagger, these more formalist documentaries and thinking, ‘Oh wow, you can do that with a documentary?’ said Kingdon. “I was just drawn to documentaries that went more into the realm of art and it produced very powerful feelings that was hard to put into words.”
While “Ascension” may take inspiration from others, Kingdon’s debut is a marvel unto itself, an equally amusing and trenchant examination of how China is adjusting to its rapidly growing presence in the global economy by following the country’s supply chain in all the strange directions it may lead. Entire factories devoted to making MAGA hats and sex dolls to send abroad may appear to be silly, but they’re serious business for the companies making them and though an entrepreneurial spirit has seized the imagination of millions in a society rooted for such a long time in ideas of the collective, China’s hasty rearrangement along the lines of the current global economic leader America and other countries from the Western world appears as if rather than looking at how to transcend the mistakes others made in building a financial engine that could be of benefit to all, the unique opportunity to reimagine what an economy looks like is being used to reaffirm a class system already in place.
Understanding that mere glances can expose the paradoxes of embracing capitalism in a society rooted in communism for so long, Kingdon and Truesdell brilliantly capture a society in flux in both arresting individual frames and an ultimately irresistible whole, moving energetically from an employment event where potential workers are promised “You can choose the job you want,” though the pay of ¥16 an hour (or $2.36 American, albeit the gig comes with free wi-fi) quickly gives way to a harsh reality, to self-empowerment seminars where you’d suspect the only ones getting rich are those running the sessions. Traveling from the factories that have long been the backbone to China’s economy to all the new opportunities for labor to serve an upper class, whether they be in theme parks or personal service industry such as bodyguards or butlers, the film’s lively compositions constantly take the long view to show the human element in a system that threatens to reduce people to data points on an Excel spreadsheet.
Made all the more glorious by an invigorating score from Dan Deacon, “Ascension” is one of the great documentaries of this year and after winning Best Documentary Feature earlier this summer at the Tribeca Film Festival, it arrives in theaters this week, with Kingdon and Truesdell kind enough to mark the occasion by talking about what led them to China in the first place and making sure nothing was lost in translation as they conveyed what the labor market in the country looks like to the workers in it.
How did this come about?
Jessica Kingdon: I made a short called “Commodity City,” which takes place in Yiwu, China, the largest wholesale mall in the world, and I was originally thinking about pitching this trilogy [of shorts] that followed the supply chain related to production, consumption and waste. Initially, I was thinking about something that was more ecologically driven about our impact on the earth and as I was pitching this film at IFP in 2017 with Nate and with our other producer Kira, somebody asked me, “Hey, why isn’t this a feature?” I hadn’t thought of it in that way before because I just haven’t seen that many movies that take place with several vignettes like that, but when he said that, I realized that’s what I really wanted to do. Then as we started shooting, we got initial funding from our sales agent Visit Films to do some exploratory shooting and I realized that a more interesting and human story related to China’s economic rise that had to do more with the people and this new form of aspiration to get ahead, so that’s ultimately what I ended up focusing the subsequent shoots on.
Was the culture already being strongly influenced by Western economic trends or did it seem like it was going into hyperdrive as you were there?
Jessica Kingdon: Yeah, there’s that scene in the butler school where the teacher is asking, “Has anyone seen ‘Downton Abbey’? Because of course, the butlers there are trying to emulate the butler culture from England, but at the same time, there’s a lot of Chinese nationalism and wanting to resist Western culture too. There’s a lot of Chinese pride involved in this, so I actually did see it as kind of a paradox because on one hand, there were certain elements of Western culture that the Chinese were looking to emulate, but on the other, a lot of it seemed to be about Chinese ascent as this world power and wanting to maintain a strong Chinese identity.
I understand both of you actually aren’t fluent in Chinese, so I wondered if that could actually help in making an observational doc like this?
Jessica Kingdon: Yeah, because it’s like one sense is removed, but the other one’s heightened.
Nathan Truesdell: It’s an advantage from a cinematography standpoint certainly because generally when you’re shooting a documentary, you’re doing sound at the same time and if you hear something happening, you whip the camera over there and it’s like, “I’m missing it, I’m missing it.” But since we didn’t understand what was going on a lot of the time, it was easy to frame up the shots, shoot that and then…
Jessica Kingdon: Focus on the visuals.
Nathan Truesdell: We were doing a kind of shotgun approach to collecting the audio, meaning a bunch of people were mic’d up all over the place and then you’d just find them at certain moments. So it certainly had its advantages, but also its disadvantages. It’s a scary way to make a movie.
The film’s sound design really makes you feel as if you’re in these places and it seems like you were thinking about it from the start. What was it like to figure it out?
Jessica Kingdon: Sound was super-important going into this film because I wanted it to be a very sensory and visceral experience. I insisted as often as we could to mic people, even when people weren’t talking and it really paid off. One example is when we’re in the plastic water bottle factory and we mic’d this young woman who was counting the water bottles as they go by and takes off the label. You could hear the sound of the ripping and putting it back on and then she takes a break to open up her own thermos to take a drink out of it – I just loved the irony there where she’s in this water bottle factory, drinking out of this reusable thermos that she brought, but you can hear her screwing the lid off and screwing it back on and it really put us in that first person perspective. That was our eureka moment.
Nathan Truesdell: Also, the factories are very noisy, but also very rhythmic, so we recorded a lot of sounds within the factories we were shooting in to use as scratch tracks for the score, which we gave to [our composer] Dan Deacon.
Jessica Kingdon: And using the raw factory sounds, he turned that into music. He treated some of the factory machinery as an instrument as part of the score sometimes.
Jessica, you’ve said before that you’ve wanted to show what the workers would want audiences to see and I wondered what kind of engagement there was, portraying their experience, but not necessarily having them on camera.
Jessica Kingdon: We would show up and explain to people as best as we could what we were doing in China, but documentaries there are tend to be more informational or propaganda, so it was a little bit hard to explain we were doing this observational style. We tried, as much as we could, to say this is day to day life, and tried to get people comfortable so they didn’t feel like they had to perform. Actually, after the first hour of shooting once we got everything translated, [we realized] people were just talking about us, commenting, “Oh, she looks like this. Oh he looks…”
Nathan Truesdell: Literally people would be like, “Look at how pretty she is and isn’t she beautiful?” They would just be talking about Jess the whole time. [laughs]
Jessica Kingdon: Once they said, “Oh, he’s not fat at all!” Because they’re used to Americans being fat, so they were impressed we weren’t. [laughs]
From what I’ve heard, they also liked Nathan’s voice – is it true you ended up doing voiceover for a commercial?
Nathan Truesdell: Who told you this? [laughs]
Jessica Kingdon: Yeah, basically, there were some factories where they wanted something in exchange for us shooting, so as a favor to be reciprocal, we would make a video for them.
Nathan Truesdell: This specific place, a guy took us into a conference room initially and they had their corporate video and he’s like, “Check this out,” and it was a [American] robot voice. Somehow we got to talking and Jess was like, “Oh, Nate can do the voiceover for this. You don’t need this robot voice,” and so he sent me a script and I did it.
How preplanned was the shoot? It moves so seamlessly, you get the sense you shot in one location and chose your next, but with 51 places and a schedule, I know that couldn’t have been the case.
Jessica Kingdon: Oh man, it really all comes together at once. In China, it’s hard to know to plan ahead because things are always happening so fast and people might make something that might sound like one thing, but it’s a completely different thing, so it was impossible to really know what the film would be until after we finished editing. But going and shooting and coming back and editing and going back and shooting some more, we’d have a more refined idea of what we were going to shoot. I was always reformulating my understanding of what this films is based on what we were shooting, and I was trying to really respond to what was in front of me rather than going in and saying, I have this fixed idea and if I don’t get that thing then I don’t have the film. If I went into making the film that way, I wouldn’t have been able to make it.
Nathan Truesdell: If you take, for example, the bodyguard school, our great fixer Max was like, “You should go out and check this place out and he described it as a bodyguard school,” but we get there and it’s like a Chinese ghost town with a hotel that looks like something from “Beauty and the Beast.”
Jessica Kingdon: And this principal of the bodyguard school who was in love with his goats and treated them so nicely – just the whole thing is nothing you could never imagine going into.
Nathan Truesdell: It was all this visceral stuff that we couldn’t even have imagined until we got there and it just made for a very fascinating shoot because you never knew exactly what you were getting yourself into.
When you’re in the edit, was there anything coming to the fore you hadn’t expected during shooting?
Jessica Kingdon: Yeah, one thing I love about this method of filmmaking is when you’re shooting, you’re so focused on making sure everything’s right and getting the shot and sometimes you don’t fully process everything that’s going on that the camera is capturing, so going back and looking at this footage months later, is like rediscovering these experiences that you had sometimes.
Nathan Truesdell: And working with our translators was obviously very eye-opening where they’d come back with the translations and you’d be like, “They were talking about that?!?”
Jessica Kingdon: Translating in any language is very complex because language and culture are so deeply intertwined with one another, meaning often times there is not exactly a direct translation from one language to the next, so you do have to do a lot of interpretation. We worked with a whole team of translators and there were several times where we would have several translators telling us that one thing could be interpreted in a few different ways, so there were times where we really had to make these editorial decisions, which I really enjoyed because I also really enjoy the process of writing, and in some ways it felt closer to something literary where I would dig through conversations and finding things that could be akin to something from the literary world, not where we’re reaching for it or changing things, but rather like identifying these standout words that are beautiful.
Nathan Truesdell: And it’s a complicated language. Our co-producer and best fixer Maggie Lee, she is basically a linguist — she won a National Championship for English — and we got three hours away from Shanghai and we’re shooting these grannies and she looks at me and says, “I can’t understand what they’re saying at all.”
Jessica Kingdon: Because there’s also so many dialects spoken within China, so you go three hours outside of a major city and people are speaking an entirely different dialect that’s not translatable. Figuring out how to translate some of these things, we’d have to do a deep dive, like who knows someone who had a relative from this region who understood that dialect.
Now it’s seeming like you’re connecting with people around the world — I saw you were just in Zurich with the film. What’s it been like bringing it out?
Jessica Kingdon: It’s been really nice, the positive response. I feel like sometimes people really get what I’m trying to do and sometimes it can be intimidating.
Nathan Truesdell: But I think that’s an outcome of making a very verite fly-on-the-wall documentary is that Jess didn’t force them to think a certain way about [something].
Jessica Kingdon: People can see what they want to see and can take what they want from it.