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Entries in Iron Ministry/The [2014] (1)


The Iron Ministry (2014)

Rail Against the Machine

What do you get when you cross 2001: A Space Odyssey with Snowpiercer and real life? The answer is The Iron Ministry, J.P. Sniadecki's daring documentary about the Chinese railway system. The film travels seamlessly through different parts of a long cross-country train, capturing class and cultural conflicts (both stated and implied), and zeroing in on everyday sights and sounds to the point of abstraction--creating an alien landscape marked by dashes of familiarity.

That abstraction is absolute, and begins with a few minutes of pitch darkness. Just as Kubrick planted the seeds of dread and wonder in his audience with 2001's powerful opening orchestration, Sniadecki (aided by Ernst Karel) gives us a score made wholly of ambient noise. Soon, the black screen pulsates, giving way to metal lungs, a heart, and the hundreds of harmonious parts pushing this beast forward. 

Sniadecki introduces organic life in much the same way Clive Barker did in Hellraiser: we see people picking through bloody, leathery clumps of meat, sorting the good bits from the waste in a cold, nondescript environment. What's particularly chilling here is that this takes place on a commuter train, between cars. We move away gradually, getting a peek at people of various means and age groups, all packed in so tight that many sleep either standing up or contorted into such unnatural shapes as to become living art objects.

It's not all doom and gloom on this voyage. The opposite end is sparse, pristine, almost luxurious. Passengers stretch out in spacious sleepers, or stare blankly into their smart phones while seated at polished booths in the restaurant car. We don't hear much from the well-to-do section. In fact, Sniadecki is kicked out by security early on, while merely passing through the car with his camera.

The Iron Ministry's stories all come from the lower and middle-class citizenry. From college students' cautious critiques of the corporate landscape; to factory workers' associating their government's aggressive railroad expansion with a Tibetan prophecy about iron dragons and horses overrunning the land; to an encounter between a pair of young Chinese Muslims and their curious fellow travelers, Sniadecki weaves commentary into his dream-like profile of men and machines.

I don't know if it's a spoiler to say that Sniadecki captured his footage between 2011 and 2013. That information would have been helpful to me at the start of the film, but it came at the very end. At issue, for me, is the degree to which The Iron Ministry is an immersive experience. As a switched-on audience member, I appreciated the director's bonkers visual sensibilities, but found the narrative coincidences a bit much to stomach. Knowing how the film was put together, at the outset, might have prepared me for the unsettling (just shy of obnoxious) amount of soapboxing rumbling just beneath all the artistry.

It's difficult to imagine another side to the story Sniadecki's imagery tells. But I have a feeling his implied "Eat the Rich" message could be worked at a different angle, using the same footage, were a filmmaker to start at the opposite end of the train (so to speak). When we pull into our final stop, Sniadecki trades in the serene, green countryside for traffic jams, crowded skylines, and pollution so thick that I reflexively took a deep breath. It's a jarring and effective transition that contrasts nicely with the film's opening moments.

The Iron Ministry doesn't go off the rails to the same degree as Snowpiercer, but both movies suffer from over-editorializing on the part of the filmmakers. It works best as a series of artfully packaged snapshots, a nature special in which Sniadecki zooms in on a segment of our species to examine the customs and technology that have at once advanced us and held us back from realizing our true potential. This approach leaves the film itself open to criticism, with the omniscient editor's eye inserting meaning and context that the pure imagery might have done (and done better) on its own. Though the passengers' interactions are great, I wonder how much more powerful the film would have been without dialogue--without "scenes", culled from years of footage and dropped in at the right moments for maximum dramatic effect. I appreciate Sniadecki's heart and talents, but there were times on this journey when I wanted to get off at an earlier stop.