Tribeca 2021 Women Directors: Meet Jessica Kingdon – “Ascension”

New York-based Jessica Kingdon is a Chinese-American director and producer. She was named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker Magazine and selected for the 2020 DOC NYC “40 Under 40” list. Her award-winning documentary short “Commodity City,” about the world’s largest wholesale mall in Yiwu, China, was shortlisted for a Cinema Eye Honor and has played at over 50 film festivals. Kingdon’s producer credits include Tania Cypriano’s “Born To Be;” Ian Bell’s “808: How We Respond;” Nathan Truesdell’s “The Water Slide;” and Johnny Ma’s “Old Stone.”

“Ascension” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

JK: “Ascension” an image-driven essay film composed of a series of vignettes, climbing up the rungs of China’s social ladder. The film is structured in three parts, ascending through class levels. It begins with labor in factories; the middle-class training for and selling to aspirational consumers; and the elites reveling in a new level of hedonistic enjoyment.

A unifying theme of the film is its embrace of the absurd, which I feel to be a powerful lens through which paradox and open-ended bemusement can be portrayed. The film is a Rorschach test of sorts, in which images do not carry explicit meaning, but rather let the viewer decide for themselves and invite free associations.

I recently heard a friend describe it as “an acid trip version of The Economist magazine’s Focus on China issue,” and I think that also suits.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JK: I would say I feel a general pull towards China both because of my heritage, as well as an aesthetic interest in the philosophical questions contemporary China elicits. I see China as a stage for universal questions surrounding the paradox of progress, which are magnified and played out as it transitions from what was once known as the world’s factory to one of the largest consumer societies in the world.

In 2014, I first travelled to Yiwu, in Zhejiang, China, to create a portrait of China’s largest small-commodities market, which became my short film, “Commodity City.” Yiwu — a sprawling, semi-public space in which plastic flowers vie with cellphone cases and MAGA hats for the attention of wholesale buyers — is an absurdist image of capitalist excess. This place is a stopping point for mostly useless objects as they move from the factory to the outside world, where they will live a short life before being turned into polluting waste.

I was drawn to the visual excess and paradox of Yiwu, and yet what struck me was not the inhumanity of its proportions and aims, but rather the human life that flourished within its boundaries: the families, the lunches, the humorous and canny bargaining between buyer and seller.

I began to think about the ways in which this humanity is echoed throughout China’s behemoth market system, and I started to seek out spaces in which this paradox was exemplified. That journey across China and between class lines became my first feature documentary, “Ascension.”

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

JK: I hope for the film to elicit a multiplicity of ideas and conversations. There is no single takeaway that I have in mind.

It’s difficult to predict how audiences from different countries will interpret the film, but one hope is for a specifically American audience to recognize themselves in the film. I see the film as a kind of mirror to the United States. Like the U.S., China is a country of extremes, of highs and lows and of great income inequality.

The film strives to recognize how the contemporary “Chinese Dream” remains an elusive fantasy for most, and again, for an American audience, I think this will ring true. I want viewers to experience how capitalism is manifested in a different context to help them think about it in their own.

My goal was not to single out China as a paragon of capitalist indignity, but to use this “factory of the world” to illustrate the daily realities of industrial systems, both in one nation and globally.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JK: Production was unpredictable, but that also made it fun and exciting. We would show up to a location thinking we were going to shoot one thing and find out it was something completely different. But that was part of the joy of the unknown.

The most challenging part was enduring the tedium of editing. It felt like solving a test or a riddle I had invented for myself, even though I knew that the answers were literally infinite. Initially, we thought we would bring on another editor, but as I continued to edit, it became clear to me that I had to edit this primarily myself — I also had the help of my partner and producer Nate Truesdell as an additional editor.

While this is not a personal film, its tone feels distinct, and I don’t think that I could find someone to replicate that. Not because of how unique I am, but because I was discovering the language of the film as I was editing it, if that makes sense.

I say that editing was tedious, but there were moments of elation too, like when I would make an unexpected connection, or discover a piece of footage that spoke differently to me upon multiple viewings.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JK: Our sales agent, Visit Films, put in the seed money, which allowed us to make the initial trip to China. During this trip, we shot the first footage for this film and used it to make a fundraising sample. We ended up making three more shooting trips with several months in between. When we were not shooting, we were improving the media samples and writing grant applications. My producer, Kira Simon-Kennedy, was very proactive and motivating for me on this front. In this fashion, we pieced the budget together as we continued to accumulate footage.

The concept of the film strengthened as we shot more, so having time in between our shoots helped us create a stronger pitch. We were funded mostly through grants, with some equity. We were lucky enough to have support from many institutions including SFFILM, Chicken & Egg, Cinereach, Sundance, Field of Vision, Firelight Media, NYSCA, and XTR.

I would feel so lucky if I am able to pull it off like this again. By that I mean I recognize how difficult it is for unconventional documentaries like mine — or any documentaries, for that matter — to get the kind of funding we did. As I was making the film, I kept feeling like this could be the only chance I get to make a film this way and even now, I remain incredibly grateful to them for taking the chance on this film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

JK: I was always interested in pursuing multiple creative fields, but ultimately I landed in filmmaking. I think this is because filmmaking is inherently collaborative and therefore holds one accountable to others. This type of accountability is helpful for me. I think it’s very difficult to be self-motivated.

W&H: What’s the worst and best advice you’ve received?

JK: The worst advice: During a pitch meeting at a meet market, a woman who represented a large broadcasting company advised us to abandon the project when we told her we had no characters in the film.

At a film festival, another filmmaker told me that I should hire someone with more “street cred” to be the editor because that would get the project noticed. I know he had good intentions, and sometimes it really is the right move to bring on an editor, but I think it’s misleading to think that you can hire someone else to make your project good.

This is related to the best advice, which was to believe in my own abilities. My partner, Nate, helped empower me to believe I could actually edit this myself, and didn’t need to bring on a “star editor” with more experience than me to lend the project additional clout.

And my producers, Nate and Kira, were both champions of my vision the whole way through, even when I wasn’t confident in what I was doing. Their abilities to imagine what I was doing gave me the courage to keep going.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

JK: Believe in your own abilities and don’t be afraid to take up space. Try not to look outside yourself for validation, as tempting as it is. Trust your own instincts. Surround yourself with people who encourage you but aren’t afraid to question you.

Hire people who you like and get along with — it sounds obvious, but it makes collaboration better. I worked with Dan Deacon on the score, and it was such a fulfilling collaboration, not just creatively but interpersonally.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JK: I don’t have favorites of most things — maybe besides my dog — but I will say Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels” remains one of my favorites, for her patient and irreverent filmmaking. I’ve always been fascinated by representations of female domesticity, and her film pulls it off in a quiet yet radical fashion. I admire her commitment to long takes and durational cinema, and I aspire to do the same — though I wasn’t able to pull it off this time.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

JK: We finished shooting this film in December 2019, right before COVID took over the world. It was lucky timing for us because all we had to do was edit, which took place at home for me. For the editing of this film, lockdown was helpful because I could just focus on one thing. I don’t think I realized it consciously, but staying at home all the time has made it difficult for me to translate ideas into action for future projects.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

JK: Decentering whiteness. Instead of focusing on “inclusiveness,” which inadvertently reinforces pre-existing hierarchies, imagine ways which can shift the center of power. In terms of tangible actions, put more people of color in positions of leadership, rather than just hire POC to make a statement. I have been witnessing a lot of this work being done in the doc industry by organizations like Firelight Media and Brown Girls Doc Mafia.

Hollywood could take note of the ways in which the documentary world is in open dialogue with itself about reorganizing structures of power. It’s helpful to think expansively, with a model of abundance rather than scarcity.

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