Composed of footage director J.P. Sniadecki captured on Chinese trains from 2011 to 2013, The Iron Ministry is, inevitably, a metaphor for the country’s rapid advance as an economic powerhouse. Passengers carry massive baskets of produce and meat onto one train, then peel their vegetables and butcher the meat, hanging beef to dry in massive slabs. Meanwhile, those in coach purchase grab-and-go goods from a food vendor who can’t get through a car without running out of instant noodles. Consumers gripe about high prices, but take the food anyway. The vendor proceeds through the car, his cart constantly maneuvering to avoid people sitting in the aisles, presumably without seats. Passengers sleep, or try to, everywhere: on cardboard boxes laid over a steel floor, atop a suitcase on the bathroom sink, nestled against one another to offset the train’s constant rustling. The government-run transport can’t keep up with the nation’s increasing mobility, nor the prolific waste its riders create. It is, however, trying to offer service with a smile.
The Iron Ministry is the latest film from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and the third by Sniadecki, who co-directed the underseen Foreign Parts and People’s Park, a single-shot tour of a public oasis in Chengdu. If the film bears a resemblance to any other film from the program, though, it’s the heady abstraction and churning sound design of Leviathan. Sniadecki begins the film with a two-minute sound collage over a black screen. The screech of brakes and metallic honk of track changes yields an uncanny harmony, accompanied by the thrum of accelerating motion. The first images are defamiliarizing close-ups of the accordion-like slats of steel and rubber that line the catwalks between train cars. A small pool of water is littered with cigarette butts. Even as the film slowly edges toward more concrete imagery, Sniadecki moves and places his camera in positions that emphasize the hermetic, cramped nature of train travel: Whenever he peers into a private bedroom, figure after figure flits and jostles through the frame. In The Iron Ministry, a rickety and filthy machine carries the people, but that population is so teeming with needs and ambitions that they demand to be heard and recognized.
Though Sniadecki doesn’t elucidate any broad structural motive, his film gradually adopts an engrossing rhythm among its clatter of steel and ambient chatter. Long, nearly silent passages are bracketed by unexpected flourishes of dialogue, some instigated by the director. The first soliloquy is delivered by a young Puck atop a bunk bed, imploring passengers “with explosives” to “please hurry aboard and enforce our nation’s population control policy.” Later, Sniadecki talks with a woman moving away from home in order to meet a prospective husband, and observes others discussing religious minorities and labor standards in factory towns. Passengers seem simultaneously bewildered by their nation’s ascent and anxious for its skyrocketing GDP to translate into eight-hour workdays, ungarnished wages, affordable urban housing, and Western-style service jobs.
If China’s rise hasn’t yielded much in the way of democratic inclinations, The Iron Ministry suggests that it’s fostered some feisty and metastasizing democratic sentiments. Some of the film’s best moments find its trains becoming an open public forum, with strangers simply, openly discussing their hopes and dreams and the state of things in their country. Resignation mingles with cautious optimism in an age where citizens have more platforms to be heard, but a Tibetan woman, explaining the film’s title, augurs that the heavy hand of the state has a thirst for total control and expansionist might. Sniadecki, indeed, runs into the haughty posture of authoritarianism in his roamings, but despite the clang of its steel fortress, The Iron Ministry is as delicate in temperament as most of its subjects, who foster a mode of transparent discourse they’d like their country to echo.