…on class & development

Dan Edwards: JP Sniadecki, The Iron Ministry

The Iron Ministry

The Iron Ministry

It starts with a distant drone in darkness, slowly building to a screeching cacophony. After a few minutes shapes loom from the shadows, but they remain abstract, difficult to connect to a wider reality. We’re in a cramped, Dante-esque space of steel, rubber and glass. The hellish impression only deepens when the first signs of ‘life’ are revealed—blood-red hunks of raw meat hanging from railway carriage walls in what appears to be an improvised butcher’s shop.

JP Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry is an intimate portrait of life on China’s rail network. Although the frame gradually opens up after the dim, claustrophobic opening, we remain in a world circumscribed by trains that seem to roll ever onward, impervious to their human cargo and beyond the power of any individual to stop or even divert. After the camera frames the raw meat, a human element enters the image in the form of an old man peeling vegetables, squatting in the rattling vestibule of an equally aged carriage.

This is the lively, overcrowded world of China’s hard-seat class, where life in all its vitality, humour and grime is always inescapably in your face. As in every country, waste and death are more present the further down the socio-economic ladder you go, so in addition to the meat hung from the carriage walls, we see dirt-covered floors and a filthy, cigarette butt-filled toilet bowl swaying gently to the train’s rolling rhythm.

We spend quite some time in carriages little changed for decades, packed with rural folk bearing produce and dressed in tunics and caps straight from the 1970s. As we cut from one seemingly random train to another, it gradually becomes apparent we are winding our way up through the many options available on China’s rail network. From the hard-seat class carriages we move to the still crowded but cleaner and more orderly soft seat class. We witness the refined lace and quiet of the soft sleeper compartments. Finally, towards the end of the film, we arrive in the vacuum-sealed, air conditioned sterility of China’s new bullet trains, where people no longer seem to interact, let alone talk. Indeed, on the bullet train we see there are few people present. Instead, well-dressed, isolated individuals simply gaze at their mobile phones as they glide across the country at almost 400 kilometres per hour.

In following this journey through China’s many different types of trains, the film also traces the contours of the country’s class system. To have money means you can insulate yourself, to a degree, from your compatriots and the world outside. You can partake of the most up-to-date transportation imaginable, and move about at great speed. And the faster China’s upper middle classes travel, the further they seem to pull away from those in the slow hard-seat carriages, whose lives may have improved over the past 30 years, but for whom basic conditions remain much the same.

Sniadecki is part of the Sensory Ethnographic Lab at Harvard University, and The Iron Ministry is very much in the tradition of a certain strain of US Direct Cinema. Specifically, The Iron Ministry draws heavily on the approach of documentarian Frederick Wiseman who launched his career with the controversial Titicut Follies back in 1967 and has churned out a documentary almost every year since. Like Wiseman, Sniadecki is not so much interested in individuals—though we do meet some very memorable people in The Iron Ministry—but rather a system, an institution at work, as it shapes the behaviour and thoughts of its subjects.

In the case of The Iron Ministry, the institution is China’s vast rail network, which has been steadily expanding into the country’s furthest reaches over the past 20 years. “The railway changed Tibet enormously,” comments one passenger to camera, referring to the Beijing-Lhasa line completed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As well as bringing tourists, she claims the rail link has brought mining bosses from all over China, eager to exploit the remote province’s mineral wealth. She draws a direct parallel with America’s expansion westward in the 19th century, in which the railways also played an integral part, opening the land to industrial development and providing great opportunities for those who came in the trains’ wake—as well as unprecedented disaster for the indigenous people already there when the tracks were laid. Unlike the United States, however, China’s complex experience of modernity has been a stop-start affair, marred by colonialism, war and the disasters of Maoism: the resultant uneven nature of the country’s development is evident in Sniadecki’s film.

Wiseman’s influence looms large in the People’s Republic, and by working in the tradition of his Direct Cinema style, Sniadecki also aligns his film with much of the independent documentary work that has been done by Chinese directors over the past 25 years. This is unusual for a documentary made by a Westerner in China, where foreign films generally operate in a world apart from those locally made. In the 1990s, the early Chinese independent Duan Jinchuan was inspired by Wiseman’s observation of institutions to make films like The Square (1994), about daily life on Tiananmen Square, and No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1996), about the workings of a low-level government office in Tibet’s capital Lhasa. More recently, festival favourite Wang Bing draws on some of the same methods in films like West of the Tracks (2003) and Til Madness Do Us Part (2013).

China’s varied documentary scene these days also encompasses many other styles and approaches, but The Iron Ministry demonstrates that carefully structured observational work can still inform thought-provoking cinema that resists the explanatory voiceovers favoured by television documentary. Sniadecki’s subtly layered film reveals much, comments little and leaves us many questions to ponder—not least what happens when the forward momentum of China’s railway expansion and the economic boom upon which it is built begin to slow down.

The Iron Ministry; writer, director and producer JP Sniadecki; USA/China, 2014; Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, 7–15 March

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 18

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

20 April 2015