Ascension: A Mesmerizing Glimpse into China’s Invisible Economy

Ascension (2021), directed by Jessica Kingdon and produced by Kira Simon-Kennedy and Nathan Truesdell, is a vividly striking documentary set in China that examines each stage of the supply chain and the day-to-day realities of workers who enable the lavish consumption of the upper class. Through visually and sonically mesmerizing vignettes, the film lays bare the material excesses of China’s consumerist economy and the relentless pursuit of the “Chinese Dream.”

APA had the opportunity to speak with director & co-cinematographer Jessica Kingdon, producer & co-cinematographer Nathan Truesdell and producer Kira Simon-Kennedy to hear more about the inspiration for and artistic decisions behind the film.

APA: What inspired you to make this film?

Kingdon: I wanted to make a film that was a visceral exploration of the invisible economy that powers the industrial supply chain and enables our modern lifestyles. The film is bookended by scenes that highlight this: the opening shots take place in a low-wage labor market where workers are being recruited to large electronics manufacturing jobs at companies like Foxconn and Huawei, and the closing scene shows a rare earth mineral mine in Mongolia that provides the raw materials needed to produce devices that we are all dependent on.

The film also opens and closes with a poem written by my great-grandfather titled Ascension, which I stumbled upon during our last filming trip to China. I found out through my mother that my family was from Changsha, Hunan, one of the stops on this trip. I learned that Zheng Ze,  my great-grandfather, was a well-known poet at the time, and I met with relatives who brought me several of his poems from a nearby museum. We were about to submit the film to festivals and needed to settle on a final title–we had several potential titles but none of them really stuck–and Kira suggested going through some of the poems one more time for inspiration. One of the poems, titled Ascension, was written in 1912 during the fall of the Qing dynasty and alludes to the paradox of progress, which is also what this film is about, so we decided to use this title for the film. The film is also structured in a way that ascends the class system, so all these elements came into place at the very end.

APA: One of the first things that stood out to me was the photographic way the scenes are shot, where the camera stays still and allows the action to unfold organically. I have a couple theories on why this style was chosen, but I’d like to hear you speak about your intentions behind that decision.

Kingdon: Now I’m curious to hear about your theories! It’s a style of film that I’m drawn to. One of the shorts I made previously, Commodity City, which in part inspired this film, takes place at Yiwu market, the largest wholesale market in the world, and is wholly composed of static shots. I’m drawn to this style of verité film because it allows the viewers to be active participants and make their own decisions on what to focus on when watching the movie. The director isn’t telling you where to look so your eyes can wander around the frame, and it allows the images to speak for themselves.

Truesdell: From a production standpoint, it allows for the action to unfold in front of the camera, instead of having to follow a subject. This style allows the viewer to watch the scenes without having to wonder about who the camera operator is; it’s more like photography.

Simon-Kennedy: It also helps people forget about the fact that there is a camera around and not have to wonder what is going to happen next.

APA: It’s refreshing to see these static shots and to fully take in the scenes. My theory was that this style serves as a contrast to the ever-increasing pace of our world, and it forces viewers to slow down and reckon with where technology-fueled innovation has taken us.

Kingdon: That’s a huge part of it as well. One of the hardest things when filming was to not touch the camera because there were so many things going on at once, and I constantly wanted to reframe or change the angle. It took a lot of discipline to override that urge because each time I touched the camera, the shot would be over. It was almost a meditative practice in itself, where I had to let go of the desire to control the camera.

APA: How did companies and employees respond to being included in the film? And how did you describe the film to them?

Simon-Kennedy: We explained to them that we were making a film about the economy and work. In the butler school, we shared with the students and teachers that we were curious about this brand new field and what it feels like to be learning these skills. It led to a lot of interesting conversations with people. A lot of places didn’t allow us to film, but the ones that did were excited to show what they were doing.

Kingdon: We were transparent about making an observational documentary about China’s economic rise, and for many viewers, there is an implicit critique, but that was not the agenda of the movie. We were really trying to show the work at specific sites that contribute to the economy, and those who were willing to be in the film saw this as an opportunity for cultural exchange. We also worked with a great team of field producers in China who were able to explain our intentions to people.

Truesdell: I hope that through this film, viewers are able to see the humanity of the people in these invisible roles. The people in the film are painted in a way that emphasizes their humanity and personalities.

APA: Have you shown this film to the people who appeared in it, and what was the reception?

Kingdon: There are a lot of people featured in the film, so we haven’t gotten a chance to show it to everyone yet. Those who have seen it have responded pretty positively, and because the film takes place in so many locations, people are able to see and learn something new. In addition, the film also doesn’t have an explicit political critique to it, so the reception has been good so far.

Simon-Kennedy: One thing that we found fascinating is that everyone sees something different in the film; we’ve had amazing conversations about the inherent contradictions within capitalism, and we’ve seen people’s reactions to the humor and to the visuals. It’s so interesting to hear about the parts of the film that people resonate the most with.

APA: The film explores ideas and identities that are often in contrast with each other and blurs the line between them, leading viewers to question our traditional understanding of consumer vs. producer, human vs. machine, master vs. subordinate, etc. How did you try to highlight these contradictions in the film?

Kingdon: I wanted to show the contradiction between the dehumanizing environments of these factories and people’s humanity and to show how these coexist in the same space. One very practical way of doing this was through sound; we tried to mic as many people as we could, even with scenes with no dialogue, to get first-person sound so the viewers can feel like they inhabit that physical space. In the scene where a woman is putting labels on plastic water bottles, she stopped to unscrew her thermos and take a sip of water, and I think capturing the sound of these small moments is an important aspect of the film.

Simon-Kennedy: There’s something to be said about an employee who works in a plastic bottle factory drinking out of a reusable bottle. There are so many little moments that show these ironies and contradictions — one great example is the scene where a factory worker is watching a war movie on their phone, and if you look closely, the subtitles are about escaping and leaving the building. It’s so subtle, but it’s clear that she’s using this show as a form of escape from her monotonous job, and it’s these moments that show how people are trying to cope with the contradictions of their circumstances.

APA: I’m curious about the soundtrack used in the movie. It sounds like an amalgamation of industrial machine sounds made into music. Can you talk more about the soundtrack and what went into it?

Kingdon: We worked with Dan Deacon, who did an amazing job composing the score. Nate and I wanted to use the sounds from the sites we visited, like the bicycle graveyard or a cryptocurrency mine. We had a field recorder gather these sounds, which was then made into the score. [Dan] would think of the machines as instruments.

Simon-Kennedy: Throughout the film, the score ascends harmonically up the scale.

Kingdon: The music also falls out of harmony and becomes dissonant at points, symbolizing the unrealized potential of the Chinese dream.

Simon-Kennedy: We also wanted to use sounds that correlated with the scenes, for example using sounds from plastic instruments to create the score for the plastic factory scene.


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