An immersive look at the railways that strain to connect a growing China.
A molecular portrait of a nation that’s in the process of becoming a universe unto itself, J.P. Sniadecki’s vérité dispatch from China captures a seemingly infinite superpower by paradoxically going in the other direction. Confining its view to the narrow corridors of China’s train system—soon to be the largest of its kind in the world—The Iron Ministry vividly speaks to the country’s impossible vastness by focusing on its tiniest and most transient details, cobbling them together into a captivating mosaic of life in motion.
Over the last few years, Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab has produced some of the most immersive documentaries the form has ever seen. From a trout’s-eye view of the commercial fishing industry (Leviathan) to a look at the life of a rickety Nepalese gondola (Manakamana), the program’s faculty and alumni—like Sniadecki—have used digital technology to provide previously impossible perspectives on complex systems of business, movement and migration. The Iron Ministry vibrates and clatters with such percussive consistency that you soon forget that the rest of the world doesn’t; as you emerge from the theater, the lobby will seem newly static and serene. The images here aren’t as indelible as those of SEL’s other documentaries, but their force is real.
Amid the rumble, Sniadecki’s camera spies such a variety of life that it soon seems as though these trains provide a stage for the full spectrum of human activity. Butchers flay their meat, drunken strangers become friends, a Muslim migrant worker explains his faith to countrymen from very different backgrounds. There’s never an empty seat, and most people sleep folded over whatever heap of luggage they can find. Like Albert Maysles’s In Transit, James Benning’s RR and many of the best films about riding the rails, The Iron Ministry divorces its trains from the banality of their purpose, achieving something larger and more suggestive of transformation in the process. Impressionistically cobbled together from scores of different trips, the film never lets you know where the train is coming from or where it’s going. Instead, it feels suspended in limbo, everyone on board trying to make sense of China’s explosive transition towards modernity in real time. At one point, a cheeky kid pretends to be the conductor, issuing deviant instructions from his bunk bed. The people around him are laughing, but they’re leaning in all the same—no one wants to be left behind.
Follow David Ehrlich on Twitter: @davidehrlich