The U.S. is not the only country with growing income inequality. The same is true of China, a phenomenon explored in the Oscar-nominated feature documentary Ascension, from MTV Documentary Films.
Jessica Kingdon’s film examines the vast tide of humanity at the bottom of the economic scale, flowing into cities to take menial factory jobs; a growing middle class with aspirations of wealth creation; and the super-rich, China’s 1 percent.
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“The film is loosely structured by ascending the class ladder,” Kingdon explained during a panel discussion for Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees event. “But a lot of it was also showing the middle class and showing leisure time. I wanted it to not just be about production, but also about how people spend their free time and what the different forms of that can look like and what everyone’s working for and what pleasure can look like.”
Conspicuous consumption for the very wealthy can take the form of elegant dining, seemingly influenced by a desire to imitate “how things are done” in the West.
“You see extreme close-ups of people’s faces while they’re eating Spanish ham and drinking fine wines and eating chocolates,” said Kingdon, whose family on her mother’s side came from China originally. “And that’s kind of a juxtaposition of scale for me as well, because you see these huge, enormous wide shots and these extreme close-ups.”
Kingdon and her husband, producer-cinematographer Nathan Truesdell, and producer Kira Simon-Kennedy filmed in a huge number of locations around China – in massive water parks, a school where butlers to the rich are trained, outside a crypto currency mine, and in factories where workers make widgets of every description.
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“We didn’t set out to make an investigative film. We really wanted to just show things as they were,” Simon-Kennedy said. “A lot of places were very eager to have this kind of cross-cultural dialogue and welcoming in film crews. And a lot of them are selling products that they’re excited to show what they’re up to. … We said, ‘We’re an American film crew. This is Jessica’s first feature documentary about the economy and what the Chinese Dream looks like.’ People were really welcoming.”
There is no narration in the film, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about what they’re seeing.
“Not having anyone guiding you through that [with voice-over] and just seeing this,” Truesdell noted, “I think that people should be able to relate to the people that they see on screen.”
Check out the panel video above.
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