REVIEW: The Iron Ministry

19 08 2015

The Iron MinistryNew York Film Festival, 2014

J.P. Sniadecki begins his rather free-form documentary “The Iron Ministry” in pitch-black darkness, laying down an aural landscape of screeching trains for several minutes.  My screening companions, both exhausted by a taxing NYFF 52, took this as an invitation to nap.  I, on the other hand, found myself all the more drawn in.

Sniadecki’s work recalls the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s groundbreaking docs “Leviathan” and “Manakamana,” albeit with even less adherence to narrative principles.  “The Iron Ministry” is like a collage, both aural and visual, of what happens in the cars of a Chinese locomotive. Sniadecki’s camera feels chillingly removed from the human activity on board, making his role more akin to objective field researcher than an empathetic documentarian.

As such, “The Iron Ministry” often feels a little bit more like a historical document than a piece of cinema. If someone wanted to know what early 2000s working-class China looked like, this will be a valuable resource.  The train itself is arguably the main character of the film and, not unlike Bong Joon-Ho’s “Snowpiercer,” functions as a microcosm of their society itself.

Sniadecki does start to verbalize these politics toward the end of the film by training his lens on passengers who choose to talk about such issues, a conversation that proves detrimental to the observational style that dominates the rest of the documentary.  But even though “The Iron Ministry” clunks along to its close, the bumpy ending does not erase the power of the images that came before. The sight of trash strewn everywhere as well as people shoved into every nook and cranny of the train cannot be so easily dismissed.  B2halfstars

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