The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Ascension.
You did almost all of the work on this film— what was that experience like?
Jessica Kingdon: I did have a close cinematographer, Nathan Truesdell, and we shot it together. But, yeah, it was very much a film that was coming out of my own mind, and my own instincts. Even though this is not a personal film (about me, or about my family per se), there is something very personal about the sensibility of the film, I think? At a certain point, we did think that we were going to bring on another editor to go through all of this footage and help us find a story. But as I was kind of sifting through all of the footage and making early edits, it just made sense that it was going to be me. Because — like I said — this is such a personal vision, and a lot of it was based off of intuition, and following my own gut. And I also love shooting, too.
it was this kind of strange echo from the past
You open the film with a quote from your grandfather. Can you talk to us about that choice, and what that quote means to you?
JK: It actually came to us at the end of shooting. While I was shooting this film, I didn’t know that I still had living relatives in China, because my family — when they left China in 1949 — they cut off communication with that side of the family. When I told my Mom that I was going to this city called Changsha in Hunan province, to shoot at an air conditioning factory, she was like, “oh, you know your grandfather is from there.” And I had no idea! So one of my producers, Kira Simon-Kennedy, she works with a lot of artist residencies in China, and she happened to know a historian in that city who she put me in touch with. And because my great-grandfather was a famous poet at the time (apparently, according to my Mom), the historian did some research and my Mom was right: the historian turned up my relatives, and he also found some of his poetry at a nearby museum that had been preserved there. And I had never seen these poems before! So it was pretty moving to meet the relatives, and to see this poetry that I had been hearing about — I never knew if it was real or not, it was kind of a family legend — and then, we didn’t think that it was going to be part of the film or anything like that. But then months later, when we were trying to think about the right title… we were like, “oh, maybe we should go back and look at these poems, and just see what the translations are.” And one of them was called “Ascension,” and then when I read through the translated version we realized there was was this parallel with the film about the paradox of progress, even though it was written over a hundred years ago, and of course was in an entirely different context. It still is, at its core, about this idea of rising and hoping for that to alleviate your worries… and then realizing instead that there’s only more trouble. So it was this kind of strange echo from the past, and that’s where we got the film’s title from, and that’s how we decided to kind of bookend the film, with that poem.
There are so many remarkable examples of humanity in the film, of people trying to find their way in this giant system. What were some memorable moments for you, as you were finding these places and people?
JK: I had a framework in my mind about the types of places that would work for this film, and we had a lot of options of places we could shoot in. And I sort of new — or I sort of guessed — about what would work, and what wouldn’t work. But I was looking for places that could present a kind of visual paradox. Places that could speak for themselves, that we didn’t need exposition to explain what was going on, but rather could communicate entirely through the available visuals, or otherwise could do that through some of the naturally occurring dialog or interaction that was happening. So that was important to me, not to explain things to the audience, but rather, to let them discover it… as I was discovering it, really. And a lot of times these spaces we would go in thinking that we were going to get one thing, and it’s something else completely different. Which in some ways is really fun, because that lead to a feeling of unpredictability, and constantly having to adapt; other times it was frustrating, because you would drive for hours to a location, thinking you were going to get something, and then someone changes their mind or it’s a completely different thing than what you were expecting.
The locations you shot in are so visually captivating. Could you tell right when you arrived that you’d found a great spot? Or did that only become clear after spending time in these places.
JK: Well, for example, we thought we were going to the carpet factory to shoot a plastic bottle recycling factory. It actually is that, but what they do is turn plastic bottles — many of which happen to be shipped from Los Angeles — they turn those plastic water bottles into carpets. But they have this proprietary technology that they didn’t want us to shoot. So this is one example of us going in thinking we’re going to shoot one thing, and then seeing something completely different. Because I wanted to show in the film the cycle of plastic: bottles being made, and then waste, on the other end. So that was still a vestige of an earlier idea I had about the film being more ecologically driven. But then of course it turned out to be this totally different thing, that was so epic. Just being there was pretty breathtaking, actually. It actually got pretty tense on day number three there: the boss called us into his office for tea (which is never a good sign). He accused us of being corporate spies trying to steal their techniques, because we didn’t have a host with us. Meaning, there was no person talking in front of the camera, explaining what was going on; it was just our weirdo (“verité”) way of shooting things for long periods of time that seemed like… well, seemed like what a corporate spy would shoot! Our fixer Jack had to convince him that no, in fact these are just dumb Americans, do you really think they would steal your secrets? And I for proof, I showed him a video I had made in grad school six or seven years ago. That was just this very flat, dull, shot of a duck at a zoo swimming out of the frame… and then like thirty seconds later, the duck comes back into the frame. And the boss is studying my phone very seriously… and then he looks up and just says, “Ok, so how does this benefit me?” And… fair point! So we took some of the footage and made a promo video for them.