Jessica Kingdon ’09 Ascends to New Filmmaking Heights
For director Jessica Kingdon ’09, the hype that surrounded her first feature-length documentary, Ascension, was a whirl- wind. The film, which captures modern life across China, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 12, 2021, and nabbed the festival’s Best Documentary Feature award. Ascension continued to rack up nominations and awards on the festival circuit (Variety called the film “a remarkable achievement” and “a window into a nation’s soul”), culminating in a 2022 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
The film itself is unusual. It explores China’s varied economic landscape, from a factory producing “Keep America Great” hats, to a business etiquette seminar, to a raucous party at a waterpark. But there are no main characters to follow, no interviews with subjects, no commentary or narration as the scenes move from one location to another. The end result is haunting, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about what they have seen. “[The structure] is pretty unconventional; I didn’t know if I could pull off making that kind of film,” Kingdon says. “But I figured YOLO — why not just try? And somehow it worked. ... It did feel pretty ambitious and far-fetched at times, so the fact that it’s had this kind of response is pretty unreal.”
By passively guiding viewers through China’s financial boom, Ascension investigates what Kingdon calls “the paradox of economic progress.”
“Obviously in the past few decades China has lifted millions of people out of poverty, but with adopting this model of capitalism, it’s also led to unforeseen consequences that have to do with environmental degradation, income inequality and the alienation of hyper capitalism,” she says. “When a society undergoes such a drastic change in such a short amount of time, it brings up a lot of questions.”
After spending two years traveling between America and China for filming, Kingdon wrapped her final shoot in December 2019, right before China began locking down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (She spent another year condensing 200-plus hours of footage into a tight 97-minute runtime.) Each trip to China for filming spanned roughly five weeks, allowing Kingdon and her crew to be fully immersed in each location. Working with a small team — there were never more than three people at a time on set — helped them blend in, as well. “We were as transparent and detailed as possible with what we were doing, explaining that we were an independent documentary film crew from the States making a film about China’s economic rise and looking at day-to-day life,” she says, regarding how she captured such natural moments from her subjects.
Kingdon honed her directorial sensibilities as a film and media studies major at the College and earned a master’s in media studies from The New School in 2014. She began making a series of short documentaries set in China, gaining recognition on the documentary festival circuit. Her 2017 short, Commodity City, which takes place in the Yiwu Markets, the world’s largest wholesale mall, inspired her to delve more deeply into the Chinese economy with Ascension. “I was interested in connecting the invisible dots of the whole supply chain and trying to give viewers a visceral sense of these hidden economies that power our day-to-day consumer lifestyles,” she says.
Kingdon is now researching global food supply chains as a possible topic for her next film. She says that her interests are in “finding the minutiae and specific moments in global systems,” something she explores in Ascension’s unflinching look at capitalism. “It’s a film that can have multiple meanings and is open for interpretation but, at the end of the day, one thing I really hope is that people can see themselves in it,” Kingdon says. “Even though it’s about China, it’s more universal than that.”
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