The Iron Ministry is the first film in many years to begin with an overture. Particularly popular with the opulent studio productions of the 1950s and ’60s, the practice of including an orchestral score as prelude to the narrative was intended to provide gravitas to the proceedings as well as act as a transition from the real world to the cinematic. The overture in The Iron Ministry definitely provides the latter, but unlike films such as Ben-Hur, the music is not grasping at majesty. In fact, it’s not really music. As the droning sound plays out we discover that it is not a string section but the straining sound of metal on metal of a train moving along its tracks.
Filmed between 2011 and 2013, The Iron Ministry takes place entirely on trains traversing through China on the world’s largest railway network. The film is another project released under the Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose ascendence among cinephiles has been astronomical in recent years, thanks to a string of well-received releases such as Leviathan and Sweetgrass. The Ethnography Lab’s immersive documentaries have provided some of the most unexpected thrills in cinema as of late and The Iron Ministry is no exception. The film does not possess the formal rigor of something like the glorious gondola ride of Manakamana but that is not what this subject calls for. In fact, it needs the opposite, an embracement of movement and messiness.
Director J.P. Sniadecki has released several films with the Sensory Ethnography Lab and all are focused on one aspect of modern China. His previous feature, co-directed with Libbie Dina Cohn, was People’s Park, which consisted of one unbroken shot through a place of urban congregation and expression. With China’s railway in The Iron Ministry, he has found a perfect companion and counterpoint. The film weaves its way in and out of train cars, lingering with a group of men talking about religion or two women lamenting the low wages in their community. There’s no formal agenda here, just a camera capturing what it stumbles upon. But the varied conversations and disparate shots, some quiet and nearly frozen, others abstract and jumbled, add up to an expansive and expressive portrait of modern society.
Over and over again the film reveals that the seemingly unremarkable is truly remarkable. After seeing a dozen scenes of train cars teeming with people, all piled in on top of one another, we cut to a lone young woman looking dreamily out the window and talking about how great life would be if she could just eat and sleep all day. The abstract gives way to the personal. A security officer talks frankly about the changes in the way the railway is operated. He then pauses and asks if the camera filming him is capable of recording sound.
One stunning scene focuses on a young boy sitting in his bunk delivering a hilarious and somewhat frightening satirical train announcement, imploring passengers to steal one another’s wives, urinate in the aisles, and stick their limbs out the window in an effort to lose them, all because this is a “civilized train”. And despite the tongue-in-cheek nature of his monologue the kid is pretty right on. What we’re looking at may not be completely civilized — with its filthy floors and cramped quarters overwhelmed with cigarette smoke — it is civilization. Chaotic, confounding civilization hurtling across the planet to nowhere in particular.
(The Iron Ministry plays at the Grand Illusion Cinema 8/28 – 9/3.)