Ashes: A Documentary about a Veteran

Ashes is a documentary film by Jiuxun Jin. At the time he first visit Virginia, he got to know an EOD soldier who was about to be deployed again to Afghanistan, though he partly recovered from a heavy physical injury, under the lack of veterans health care policy, he also struggles with many mental issues. In his home, he showed the director some pictures and footage he took from the battlefield, along with telling his stories, and this film is one of his portraits.

We spoke to the director of the film about "Ashes".

What draws you to filmmaking and the cinematic language?

I rent a lot of films whenever I got money to spent when I was a kid, then I went to art school and found time-based media is more effective for me to express my ideas. So I started with short films and many experimental projects to discover my visual language in moving images.


Do you believe in film schools or does making a film teach you more than film school?

I never went to film school, but my film school friends are doing pretty well in their field, so I think for certain people, film school might help with their career, but there are also many good directors didn't go to film school. Personally, my background is traditional painting, photographic and electronic media; the skills and experience I gain from art school did give me some support, but it mainly depends on what kind of project I am dealing with. During the making of my film 'Ashes,' it needed computer graphic skills, animations, and sound editing skills, which are the mediums I am familiar to work with. Still, I believe skills are not hard to learn for people in the related field. Besides the skill part, to finish an art project or a film also need a creative mind and unique thoughts to contain the visual language with its own logic. This is somehow very personal experience-based; if someone's spontaneity could lead them to the way that they are looking for, all he/she needs to do is find the right medium and let it happen.


What makes cinema stand out more than the arts for you?

For me, all the art forms are connected; artists express their thoughts through the mediums of their choice. I make video because I feel comfortable and free in the time-based media. I shoot both digital and film material for practicing, and it doesn't mean I like one over another, because if one frame can let me fulfill the story, then I will use only one frame; if I found it is not enough, I will use more or make a video instead. Therefore, I believe that many story telling mediums are haven't fully discovered yet; the film is the one that people get used to.


Did you choose a certain directing style for making your film based on the script?

I believe directing a documentary film is different than a feature film. In this project, the main narrative is the main character's voice, 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. 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 said 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 essay films. Before I make 'Ashes,' I've mainly worked on my short film projects for many years, and most of them are experimental works. Therefore, the visual style of this film contains some animation and moving image collage. Viewers can find experiment-like visual narratives in most parts of this film.


How did you choose the cast and the crew of your film?

I fortuitously met Albert, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) veteran, when I first visit Virginia. His strong personality made me wanted to know more about his story. So I decided to make a documentary film about him. However, our schedule could not allow us to have a longer interview because he was preparing for another deployment and will depart in a few days. Besides that, I didn't bring any video equipment for the short visit. After we had a few hours of interviews, he gave me some pictures and footage from the battlefield to help me finish this project, so it was a step by step process with one men film crew.


How did you fund your film and what were some of the challenges of making this film?

For a documentary film like 'Ashes', it doesn't cost much; I have a place to stay during the shootings, and I don't have a crew; of course, the budget really depends on the project scales, but for the "one-man film crew," it is easy to manage. The shooting was just two days, including the oral interview, our schedule could not allow us to have a more extended interview because he was preparing for another deployment and will depart in a few days. However, most of the footage I took from Virginia was broken because of the half-working DSLR. The materials I got from Albert were far 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.


Do you consider yourself an indie filmmaker and what would most be the most difficult thing about being an independent artist?

I've been a multi-media artist and filmmaker for many years, and I like to experiment with the medium I am familiar with. Showing my works in art galleries and festivals worldwide gave me a lot of confidence and fun, but it is hard to keep living like this. Besides, I don't consider my experimental films as the "films" that people want to see. And I feel hard to say "creating new works"; because before I make a new work, I need to make sure what was existed first. However, learning is a lifelong process. If an independent artist can make a living with what he/she is doing, then nothing should be considered "difficult."


What is the distribution plan for your film?

I hope my film can be distributed to many platforms as possible, but I am still finding people or organizations interested in distributing my film.


What is your cinematic goal in life and what would you like to achieve as a filmmaker?

Before documentary film became a genre, people call it culture film. And before the film, there was "magic lantern show." Then, cinema takes over the visual entertainment, and I believe there are many ways to share one's unique mind, writers write, dancers dance. I feel happy that I can create works with the media that I love, and I just hope I can keep doing it.


What kind of impact would your film have in the world and who is your audience?

I made this film because I hope people can pay more attention to the veterans who were suffering from PTSD. And think more about the war and the current circumstance, one person can't stop a war, and one person can't stop people from hating each other. The only thing we can do is to be a better of ourself, care and help people that we can reach.


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