Jessica Kingdon’s stunning documentary Ascension has no narrator to explain what you are seeing but the film may not really need one. It opens and closes with quotes from a 1912 poem, “Ascension,” written by the filmmaker’s great-grandfather. The poem serves as a sort of warning about what you, the warrior, might find when you finally reach the top of the rampart. It may be devastation.
With lush photography reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi and other non-narrated documentaries about environmental damage, Ascension uses its scenes to rewrite your mental image of modern China, a country that is still ruled by an authoritarian Communist Party even if it has dropped the economic side of that.
The documentary starts at a labor marketplace, where those seeking work wander about while employers call out their low wages and promise dorm accommodations “within a 3 minute walk,” with “4 to a room, 4 to 6 to a room, no more than 8.” Those over age 38 are warned not to try to apply. Workers loaded on buses arrive at factories with conditions straight out of early 20th century sweat shops, where workers complaining about how many hours they actually work aren’t listened to and don’t matter, and just what the boss says about the hours they worked determines compensation.
Then the documentary moves on. entering classrooms where middle-class strivers train to become “star bosses,” with each proclaiming how many millions they will make in the next 3 years, and more classes where we learn that the perfect smile reveals exactly 8 teeth.
With remarkable access, Ascension is an impressive directorial debut and an eye-opener, a worthy companion to the 2019 American Factory documentary.