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‘The Iron Ministry’ and ‘Horse Money’: Of Non-Places and Men

'The Iron Ministry' and 'Horse Money': Of Non-Places and Men

This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

After the publication of Marc Augé’s book “Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity” in the early Nineties, “non-place” has become something of a buzzword, quickly spreading from academic circles to common language and even advertising. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the term “supermodernity”: vaguely awkward-sounding (at least in English), the neologism never managed to gain the popularity of, say, “postmodernity,” “hypermodernity” and the like. However, in order to define what non-places are, it is fundamental to understand what Augé meant by “supermodernity” in the first place.

According to the French anthropologist, supermodernity is a phase of late twentieth century’s capitalism characterized by three forms of excess: an excess of History (too many events happening at once for human beings to thoroughly analyze and comprehend); an excess of Space (the possibility of going/being everywhere one desires granted by fast means of transportation or, at the very least, by television); an excess of Ego (to paraphrase Jean-François Lyotard, totalizing paradigms such as religious or philosophical systems seem to have lost their ability to describe and explain reality, so it is up to each individual to give meaning to the world around him/her).

In Augé’s view, this is the Zeitgeist in which non-places — that is to say, “non-historical, non-relational, non-identitary places” — proliferated. Scholarly definitions aside, if I had to give a concrete example of non-place, I would certainly choose the railway system as depicted in J.P. Sniadecki’s documentary “The Iron Ministry,” which screened as part of the Locarno Film Festival.

A filmmaker with a background in media anthropology and ethnography at Harvard University, Sniadecki spent a few years in China studying the language and customs. During one of his stays, he decided to grab a small consumer digital camera and film Chinese people traveling around the country by train. From more than a hundred hours of footage shot over the course of three years, he put together an 80-minute collage of audiovisual fragments that is guaranteed to make Augé and his commenters excited. As “The Iron Ministry” proves, speed is the key to understanding non-places as a reflection of the times we live in. For instance, it is the train’s speed that turns the landscape outside the windshield into a sort of abstract pattern of flickering shapes and colors, thus making it impossible for travelers to recognize the region they are passing through. The only thing that can be actually gazed upon during the journey across China is the series of almost identical train stations in which the locomotive stops from time to time: So much for sightseeing and History, if quickly reaching the next destination seems to be all that matters. Speed is also a major factor in making the Chinese railway system non-relational. Firstly, the monotonous noise of the machine in motion on the tracks and the kaleidoscope of fleeting impressions outside the windshield have a sort of soporific effect on the human brain, as train-travelers all over the world can testify; second, the racket produced by the wheelset in addition to the news reports or pop songs booming through the loudspeakers makes it almost impossible to have a conversation, so travelers can’t help but take refuge in the “solitary individualism” of screen devices or sleep, hoping that their stop will come soon.

As a visual metaphor at the beginning of the movie makes clear, both for the management and the users, the Chinese railway system is a matter of transporting from point A to point B as much human flesh as possible, as fast as possible. However, I think that calling the railway system depicted in “The Iron Ministry” “non-identitary” would be incorrect. In spite of the noise, the exhaustion, stress and hunger (or maybe just because of them), Sniadecki finds a whole lot of different interlocutors willing to give their opinion on issues such as religious and ethnic minorities, housing costs, birth-control, Tibet Autonomous Region, emigration: Some are satisfied with the Party’s policies or at least try to “look at the bright side” of “the Chinese dream,” some are strongly critical and ask for more transparency and citizens’ direct participation, while others don’t care much about politics and just “want to be in love like Americans.” Capitalism might be a sort of faceless evil that tries to impose its bidding — considering the historical liaison between the expansion of railroad, industry, trade, cultural homologation, exploitation and genocide, “Towards Tibet the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” could be a good alternative title for Sniadecki’s documentary — but what’s engaging about “The Iron Ministry” is precisely that it shows that it is not so easy to break people’s will and transform them into a sort of ticket-purchasing brainwashed cattle. 

From Sniadecki’s iron horse to Pedro Costa’s and Ventura’s horse named “Dinheiro” [Money] there sure is a huge geographical leap, but people’s struggle in order to affirm their own identity and world view is really the same. Winner of the Leopard for Best Direction “Horse Money” is a collaboration between the Portuguese filmmaker and the Cape Verdean immigrants he has been befriending in the slum of Fontainhas since the making of “Ossos” (1997). Now, Fontainhas is a non-place in the proper sense of the word, since it doesn’t exist anymore: as we could see in “Colossal Youth,” (2006), the impoverished Lisbon neighborhood was torn apart by bulldozers and its inhabitants were relocated in brand new apartments with white walls, big windows and a living room with enough space for a big TV and sofa. This is not the proper place to address the issue of democratic governments trying to make poor people disappear from public view instead of actually dealing with issues of social justice (how former Fontainhas inhabitants would be able to pay the rent each month and afford a little-bourgeois lifestyle remains a mystery, for example). 

What I think is worth highlighting is that both “The Iron Ministry” and “Horse Money” grown out of the same impulse, that of using a digital camera to record the image and voice of neglected human beings, with Costa explicitly referencing the photographs taken by Jacob Riis in the slums of New York as a major influence for his work. The main difference between the two films, however, is their temporal orientation: “The Iron Ministry” is a film about a full-steam run towards an uncertain future, whereas the “existential archaeology” of “Horse Money” deals with days that, for better or for worse, are never going to come back. Specifically, through his trademark highly contrasted and highly stylized long takes, Costa reenacts the memories of Ventura and Vitalina, two Cape Verdean who emigrated to Portugal in the late Sixties and spent most of their time before and after the 1974 Carnation Revolution doing underpaid jobs and hiding from the police out of fear. Forced to leave their homeland in Africa in search for a better life and subsequently chased away from their shacks in Fontainhas too, today people like Ventura and Vitalina seem to have nowhere to go and nothing else to do but disappearing, so Costa’s film really becomes the only “place” on Earth in which they can be free to be themselves and whisper the story of their lives to anyone who is interested enough to listen.

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