As Jessica Kingdon made eight trips to China to shoot her first feature “Ascension,” a meditational look at China’s factory life and consumer society, she didn’t imagine a large audience for the result. “I thought it would be more niche,” she said in a recent interview with IndieWire over Zoom. “It’s not conventional. There are no characters. I didn’t expect so many people to find that enjoyable.”
But something clicked. MTV Documentary Films acquired the movie last summer and launched a successful awards campaign that resulted in “Ascension” getting nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. Suddenly, Kingdon’s audacious immersion into this widely misunderstood side of China’s impact on the global economy became the seminal documentary on the subject for Western viewers.
That’s significant in part because as “Ascension” lingers in its settings, which range from a fabric shop that makes “Keep America Great” hats to a training school for butlers, it doesn’t bring a critical eye to its subject. “For American viewers who just stumble on it, I really hope they see themselves in the film rather than as something that doesn’t include them or affect them,” Kingdon said. “I hope they feel, in a visceral sense, this interdependence of the global supply chain and question their own nation’s superiority.”
The filmmaker had to come to terms with what it could take to transform her abstract concept into more palatable terms. That meant hacking down her initial three hour cut to 97 minutes. “I’m trying to do something that has this spirit of experimentalism that also has some kind of entertainment value,” said Kingdon, who cited avant garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky as an inspiration, along with verite maverick Frederick Wiseman. “I wanted something that has this spirit of experimentalism that also has some kind of entertainment value. That required comprises on both ends.”
Kingdon, who had previously made short films in China, saw her subject in expansive terms. “The more interesting and complex this story became, it became less about capitalism in China and more about this quest for upward mobility that is in China but not unique to it,” she said. “It’s a mirror to these Western ideas of progress and capitalism. A lot of these ideas are there in the West but they’re more hidden. In China, they’re out in the open.”
©MTV/Courtesy Everett Collection
In a sense, “Ascension” captures the relationship the surreal and sometimes comical way that China fuels capitalism around the world. Products built on camera range from sex dolls to fake Christmas trees, but the absurdism of their production unfolds against a dead-serious background. The ironic tone, offset by Dan Deacon’s ominous score, leads to a sense of wonder and mystery about this behind-the-scenes look at products that most people taken for granted in everyday life.
Kingdon tracks the interdependence of the rest of the world on Chinese production to the “reform and opening up” process that started in 1979, when China’s market opened up to the rest of the world. “A lot of China has been defined by its interactions with the rest of the world, especially since a lot of its economy was an export economy, being able to make goods for the rest of the world,” Kingdon said.
By showing the impact of those changes in terms of pure physical labor, Kingdon also positions her filmmaking through an environmentalist lens. “I’m interested in themes of the global economy, this reliance on having everything convenient as a society and the price it pays for the planet,” she said. “But I don’t have any desire to make that kind of conventional social-issue documentary. I want to preserve that cinema-first approach.”
Given that China tends to carefully monitor its media image on the world stage, Kingdon’s access to many of settings are particularly remarkable. However, she said that she navigated different levels of access by developing the film’s aesthetic around that. “Sometimes, people would let us come in and shoot things — but you could tell they were more suspicious so they didn’t want us to mic people there,” she said. “Then I had to focus more on the visuals of the space. Other factories were more permissive.”
In the editing process, she blended those two layers of access together. In one factory, she was able to use lobe and PDR microphones to record workers over the course of a full day, capturing their aimless chatter. The audio wasn’t synced to images, so Kingdon built a collage around it, using one woman’s monologue about the idea of a haunted factory as the voiceover set to beguiling images of empty factories where she couldn’t record any audio.
Such poetic sequences enable the movie to get beyond simple polemics: It’s the rare documentary dense with economic detail but devoid of a precise argument. That happened by design. “I’m looking at things based on facts. The facts are the starting point,” Kingdon said. “But then what do you do with those facts? How do you represent them in a cinematic way? That was my big question.”
Her open-ended approach has given Kingdon hope that “Ascension” will find distribution in China, where it will start playing the festival circuit soon, and she was confident that it could get past the nationalistic filter of the country’s censors. “The line is always moving, the thing that sets off the censors,” she said. “It’s hard to predict. With this one there is a lot of ambiguity in there. A lot of things can be read in many ways.”
She wasn’t opposed to working on a new cut depending on notes that Chinese representatives might send her. “It depends what they ask me,” she said. “I think that because this film doesn’t have a kind of kernel of a central thesis, I could potentially be flexible to change certain things that I don’t think would necessarily change how the film works.”
Kingdon, who signed with Anonymous Content after her Oscar nomination, wanted to take an even broader approach for her next project. “I’m trying to do something on animal sentience or the global food supply in the same style,” she said, “but not necessarily focused on one country.”
“Ascension” is now streaming on Paramount+.