The Post-Pandemic Future of Festivals

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by Rachel Baron | June 15th, 2021

Rachel Baron: First off, how did the Tribeca premiere go for Ascension?

Jessica Kingdon: It was actually received pretty well. In terms of the reception, there’s two types of reviews: one that is slightly sinophobic and very stereotyping, but then the other one—which is the kind I appreciate and luckily there’s more of them—where people can see the United States in the film and that it’s not just about China, but about this larger question of an extreme form of capitalism. When people watch the film with empathy rather than this sense of othering and distance, I feel like that’s the right read.

I was super grateful to have a physical in-person screening happen. If I had just had an online premiere, I wouldn’t have felt the same sort of communal release and celebration. I’m from New York so this was kind of like a hometown celebration where all my friends and family came. Friends from every walk of life. So it was really overwhelming. The location itself was so surreal. Some people have said it was one of the top ten screening experiences of their lives because the setting itself was so surreal. It was at the Vessel at Hudson Yards, this sort of dystopian setting. To have that kind of screen there was perfect. The other cool thing was that because it wasn’t sectioned off from the public, people could stop and see it. And that area has so much foot traffic and people in the courtyard would stop and stare at the screen. There were several people who just stood and watched the entire movie. I was shocked.

RB: What draws you to document factory work and consumerism in China?

JK: Well I think that China is this larger stage where these questions of extreme capitalism and consumerism lie and I think it resonates so much with the United States in a way where people can see their own societies more clearly but in a different context. Even though there is so much of the US in there, I do also want it to be for an international audience and a Chinese audience. Also, I’m half Chinese so I’ve felt drawn towards China for heritage and familial reasons. But also I’m fascinated by China as this country that was once considered the world’s factory and now has one of the largest consumer markets in the world. It happened so quickly. I think it’s just really fascinating to see a society in transition where suddenly there’s this booming middle class.

RB: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of making Ascension? And at what point did you start thinking about submitting to festivals?

JK: We got very lucky with the timing. I went to China four times to shoot and the very last time when I returned it was December 2019. I had been debating a fifth trip going back, but that helped me make the decision that now we had enough footage. I basically spent Covid editing the film.

Funny enough, from the beginning of the process of this, we did write out a timeline of production and festival submission. The Sundance 2020 deadline had been our goal the whole time. So I was just working backwards from that. And it was not because it had to be Sundance. I just think every project needs deadlines in order to organize yourself and finish. I actually did finish and submitted to Sundance, and obviously didn’t get in but I think that ended up being a good thing for the creative process of the film because afterwards I tinkered around with it for several months and made all of these subtle changes that really made the film what it is. I basically kept editing until I had to give it to the colorist.

RB: What do you think the future holds for film festivals? Are there changes you hope to see? Any notable examples of film festivals that you’ve seen recently?

JK: I think that the hegemony of certain film festivals can be a harmful thing because buyers and distributors go to look for the films that they should broadcast. Rather than at smaller festivals that maybe take bigger risks and have more interesting work. Maybe this is a thing that‘s more on the distribution and broadcasting side, but I think they should go out of their way to scour other film festivals other than the blockbusters that you hear about. Some small festivals I really love: Maryland, Camden, True/False. In my experience I’ve also had the most fun at those festivals. There’s less explicitly corporate and it’s more about the experience and community and making art.

RB: Without giving too much away, what words of advice do you have for new filmmakers looking to break into festivals?

JK: The first step is to make a movie. Maybe it sounds obvious, but it’s actually really hard to finish something. You need to make a film, and you need to finish it, and it should be good. What good is, is something that only you can decide. So it’s hard not to think about how programmers or audiences are going to receive your work. But I think, as much as you can, put that final endpoint of reception out of your mind as possible and follow your own intuitions. In my experience, that’s what the programmers will be looking for. Something only you can make and not something trying to be like something else.

RB: A documentarian’s work is never done. Are there any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to share?

JK: I have a lot of different seeds of projects in mind but haven’t figured out what path to take. Since making this, part of me wants to do something similar and part of me wants to do something radically different.

Jessica Kingdon leads Get Your Film Into Festivals this June 24th! Grab a seat and see our entire Summer Workshops 2021 lineup.