Please tell us about yourself. What made you interested in making films, and where did you learn how to make films?
My name is Jiuxun Jin; I am a filmmaker currently based in Brooklyn, New York. When I was little, I spent most of my pocket money to rent movies from the video store and was obsessed with time-based media. Therefore, I went to art school and put my focus on electronic media.
Where did the idea for Ashes come from? How long did you work on the script?
I fortuitously met Albert, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) veteran, when I first visited Virginia. His strong personality made me want to know more about his story. However, our schedule could not allow us to have a longer interview because he was preparing for another deployment and would depart in a few days. Additionally, I didn’t bring any video equipment for the short visit but only a half-broken DSLR and a small handheld sound recorder. After we had two hours of interviews, he gave me some pictures and footage from the battlefield to help me finish this project. Very limited visual materials, and two hours of voice documentation, that was all I had, so it was more like a step by step process without a script at the very beginning.
Tell us about the shooting. How long did it take and what were the challenges you faced during the production?
The shooting was just two days, including the oral interview. However, most of the footage I took from Virginia was broken because of the half-working DSLR. The materials I got from Albert were not enough to build visual storytelling for this film's content. So I decided to use simple animations and moving images to support the visual part and match the interviewed content. My digital art background also leads me to build an experiment-like visual narrative, which viewers can find most visual parts in this film.
The film begins with shots of a beautiful road, which is covered with trees at both sides. The narration suddenly throws us into the atmosphere of the war. There's a contrast between that beautiful road with all those trees, and the dirty ruins and streets in Iraq. What were you trying to convey, especially with what the narrator talks about?
We are living in the same world, but we are sunken into different realities; this makes everyone different from the others, the certain images are only a simple reflection from the several reality pieces, it somehow interacts and affects everyday experience, especially for the veterans who were suffering from PTSD, most people would never imagine what they have come through, and sadly, the media that we can use are strongly limited, a flat surface that composed with pixels to show people what is happening and it can play sound with an audio device, but can never put a whole “reality” into viewers mind. So the hard image transform might help delivered the harsh visual materials that match the contents.
We first hear the character before seeing him, and we recognize him by his voice. His horrifying experiences practically make the elements of narration and sound so important. What strategies did you follow to create visual counterparts to these narrations?
It is hard to describe every aspect of a person; he has a big heart and is very open-minded; he gave me one hundred percent trust when talking about his stories. So I would like viewers to sit there and listen to what he says about himself and his war stories and have enough space to imagine with their own life experience. What would he look like, what the real battlefield looks like, and the pain, the struggles he has been through. After all, he is a human being; people pass by each other every day but don't know who they really are. So some of the moving images are just a hint, and I didn't show his face in the first place; instead, the moving image contains all his past, and his tone also has the power to deliver the emotions because what he says is all true stories. When they are edited in the timeline, the image logic is created by itself, along with the narratives. Therefore, the film can talk by itself and also have a conversation space with the viewers; like some essay films, it doesn’t show everything to the viewers, but the viewers have to use their imagination.
The film has a relatively slow and steady rhythm. What made you take this approach for such a tense topic (which is usually portrayed with fast-paced cuts and collages made from archival footages) and what made you choose this unique language to express the themes behind the film?
I was quite shocked when I heard his story; everything that happened to him on the battlefield was far more beyond my anticipation, but at the time, he was just sitting right in front of me, easy and calm. But the atmosphere was very dynamic; then I realized that I don't have to tell people that I am going to show you an intense story. Instead, it is just a scene that naturally happened on an ordinary day. Finding someone's visual language is a long process; in my previous video works, I like to use a humorous way to tell a sad story or use an unfortunate narrative to show a hilarious story, but when the subject changes, I also need to rebuild a logic to match the theme.
What makes Ashes different from war documentaries like The War Tapes & Control Room is its unique approach to get closer to the main characters. Were you trying to experience with and find new forms of narrative in your documentary? I do like to experiment with the medium that I’m familiar with, which brought me much fun. But I feel lucky to say that it is far-fetched for me to think about new forms in my work so far; because before I find a new form, I need to make sure what existed first. However, learning is a lifelong process. Moreover, I believe the imagination of film itself is way bigger than a filmmaker’s. There is an interesting balance between the scenes of home (the United States) and the war. It seems that you were trying to show ‘home’ as a haven, a comforting place. Does home have the same meaning and function for soldiers who return with psychological and physical wounds? Do they still feel at home there? It is unfortunate that when he came back home after outstanding service, the Veterans Affairs (VA) system couldn't give him proper treatment. He had to find a civilian doctor by himself while suffering from physical injuries, mental illness, and nerve damages. The physical home somehow could not comfort a soul, but when PTSD worsened, the system couldn't help him get better either, even making the situation worse. But fortunately, I heard he has gotten much better now. And this is what triggered me the most to make this film; most heroes get forgotten and suffer from a lack of proper treatment; no matter what you do, nobody can stop a war or make true peace to the world. Big games between the countries came back and forth, but only the people that get sacrificed. How important is it to have a good budget when making documentaries? And what kind of audience do you imagine for this type of documentaries? For a documentary film like Ashes, it doesn’t cost much; I had a place to stay during the shootings, and I didn’t have a crew; of course, the budget really depends on the project scales, but for the “one-man film crew,” I don’t think the budget really matters if you manage well. I was expecting veterans and people who are looking for some different experiment-like indie films would be the ideal audience. What advice can you give to those who are thinking about making such documentaries? What are the things they must avoid and the things they must do? Everyone has their own way of working, and I recommend that you shouldn’t overthink about it: do what you can, and try to love the difficulties. Early mistakes and practice are the best ways to learn. Try to plan things ahead and it will definitely help you a lot.
How did those who have already seen the film react to it? I was thrilled to hear that they really liked it, especially from Albert. But I understand that working alone is probably never going to help me achieve better things, and this film is not a big cinematic production; it is more like a personal project. However, this is my first feature-length film, and I would love to gather the experience to keep working on my future projects. What are your plans for your future projects? Will you be exploring other aspects of the same themes or are you planning on moving in a different direction? I've mainly worked on my short film projects for many years. Most of them are experimental works; showing them in art galleries and festivals worldwide did give me a lot of confidence and fun. But I don't consider my short films as the "films" that people would want to see. After Ashes, I've been working on stories from my grandpa about WWII in Asia and some other short video projects.