Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Moving Biosphere

First published on 12/13/14. After finishing rounds at film festival circuit, The Iron Ministry gets a week run in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego starting 8/21. More cities will follow. Please visit the film's website for more info.

The Iron Ministry (2014) - Sniadecki
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Just like Leviathan and Manakamana before it, J.P. Sniadecki's The Iron Ministry is another striking sensory cinema experience. Closely associated with Havard Sensory Ethnography Lab and its esteemed Colleagues - Julien Castraing-Taylor, Verena Paravel, Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez and others, Sniadecki continues exploring the cinematic medium to its new height with the film which takes place entirely on the moving trains in China.

Sniadecki, fluent in Mandarin, has been making films in China since 2010. Chaiquian, his first film explored the changing landscape of China and its 'floating people' - mass workers' migration from rural areas to the cities, followed by People's Park - a breathtaking single take film strolling through the Chengdu park, then Yumen, a docu-hybrid taking place in the ghost city of the title in China's northwest Gansu province.

Sniadecki's cinematic ethnographic survey of China continues with The Iron Ministry. He gets on one of the insanely crowded and aggressively filthy Chinese trains, and records nooks and crannies of a train, talks and listens to variety of passengers. It's another fascinating, seductive whatsit.

There are already two outstanding documentaries on the Chinese railway system - a master documentarian Wang Bing's 9-hour magnum opus, West of the Tracks and Last Train Home, about the mass migration of workers going home for the new year. What differentiate The Iron Ministry is in its framing, figuratively and literally: again, like Leviathan (a commercial fishing boat) and Manakamana (a cable car), Sniadecki's camera finds itself in a locomotive moving and not moving at the same time, finding a biosphere that exists in a confined space and within the frame. It has much in common with Bong Joon-ho's international blockbuster Sci-fi film, Snowpiercer without the in-your-face socio-political implications.

The film starts in darkness. The dull but unmistakable sound of train on the rail fades up with it. First we can't make out what we are seeing. Gradually we are introduced to the visual - it's an accordion tube part of the train where two cars connect. Its dirty interior slowly reveals itself- duct tapes here and there, holding together its plastic parts. It's jarring and alienating at first. Then we see cigarette butts floating in dirty water in the water basin gently swaying in the commotion of the locomotive. We hear men clearing their nasal passages and spitting. It's disgusting yet comforting. We know that we are in the human world territory, not that of the machine's.

There are animal organs hanging on every doorknob and meat seller's folding meat with her bare hands on the floor of the train, minding her own business. The train stops and it's a flood of humanity coming on board with their personal belongings and merchandises - fruit, vegetables, meat, in insane quantities on each. People negotiate their way through the incredibly crowded cars. They sleep wherever they can, cramming every corner of the car including over the sink in extremely contorted positions and holding, leaning on each other like the doomed lovers in Pompei. People eat, sleep, smoke, listen to music and talk to pass the time of their long journey to their destinations.

Today, it is hard to think of riding on trains as the usual mode of transportation, but the railway system is the only way for many of China's rural communities. Most of his fellow travelers Sniadecki interviews are struggling low-class people trying to find a better life somewhere else.

The filmmaker shows the train as a microcosm of fast changing China still tied to diehard traditions in a subtlest, most natural way possible. The Iron Ministry is an intoxicating combination of outside looking in, like peering into one of those precious self-sustaining eco-sphere balls and also being lost in that ball for an hour and a half. It is one of the best films of the year. Don't miss seeing this film in theaters!

J.P. Sniadecki will be on hand for a Q & A session on 8/21, 7pm screening at MoMA. Please checkout MoMA website for more info.

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