Review: The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, 2014) – SFIFF 2015


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

I’m no film theorist, historian, or even knowledgeable aficionado, but it seems as though a new type of storytelling is gaining ground in documentary film. Using the camera as roving eye, the filmmaker, already intentionally absented in most conventional documentaries, is further suppressed as even the notion of narrative–much less constructed narrative–is disassembled.

What do I mean by that? In The Iron Ministry, filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki travels on China’s trains for thousands of miles over the course of three years, not “interviewing” people (though occasionally talking to them), not telling a story (in the traditional sense), not forming a specific vision (except, perhaps, of multiplicity), but simply recording. He films people eating, sleeping (sometimes in impossible positions, e.g., crouched over a sink), cutting up large chunks of raw meat, discussing, squatting, smoking, transporting, laughing, selling, buying, listening to music, sewing, playing, spitting, paring fruit, daydreaming, and thinking on crowded sleeper cars, spacious bullet trains, in the country’s interior, on its crowded coasts. What emerges is a varied picture of the Chinese people, not as a monolithic entity we can stereotype, praise, or condemn, but as a teeming collection of individuals going about their lives as do humans everywhere, some of them more similar to their counterparts in the West than they are to their own countrymen.

A promising premise, but I found myself very, very bored at times. The average person can only scan a crowd–however varied and outrageous–for so long. Moments of eavesdropping and random encounters are few and far between. Mostly I felt as though I were on an 80-minute train ride wishing I had brought a book or a magazine.

The handful of times we’re treated to a long exchange, however, the conversation is both fascinating and rewarding. A child delivering an elaborate mock train boarding announcement. Two young Muslim Chinese and two middle-aged Han Chinese awkwardly conversing about religion and ethnic minorities and their place and value in China. A factory worker moving across the country in search of a new boyfriend and a new life. Two women discussing the plight of factory workers versus subsistence farmers in regions where the cost of living is rising rapidly (spoiler: it sucks for both). A Lhasan woman describing the enormous changes that the railway has wrought on Tibet. Three young men, in a modern Chinese reprise of the Karamazov brothers, philosophizing about their future, their responsibility to their country, and the government’s responsibility to the people.

These conversational gems make the film worth watching. If you’re viewing at home, you could fast forward the other parts, or clean your kitchen. On the other hand, maybe it’s those silences in between, the time we’re allowed to absorb and ruminate, that give space for the dialogue to stand out.

Truth be told, I’m disappointed that I’m not more open-minded, that I haven’t the capacity to enjoy–or at least appreciate–a wider spectrum of cinematic experiences. But maybe it’s not my fault. And maybe it’s not Sniadecki’s either.