Fans of the experimental documentaries “Manakamana” and “Leviathan”: there’s a new fix waiting for you, but you have to act fast. J.P. Sniadecki’s “The Iron Ministry” is streaming for free on Doc Alliance Films’ website here tonight only. The film, which has played at NYFF, the Locarno Film Festival and AFI Fest, focuses on the Chinese railway system and its passengers, which are separated by class in different compartments.
Sniadecki, who adds “The Iron Ministry” to his long project documenting Chinese public places (“People’s Park,” “Yumen”), shot the film from 2011 to 2013. He’s turned years’ worth of footage into a concentrated, 82-minute film that’s at once assaultive and humane, as he spends as much time talking to the passengers about social issues (religion, gender, class) as he does blurring three years of train rides into an impressionistic blur of nightmarish sights and sounds.
More thoughts from the web:
Michael Guarneri, Criticwire
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, 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. Read more.
Peter Labuza, The Film Stage
On the other hand, Sniadecki captures some fantastic moments throughout “The Iron Ministry”: the views of sleeping lower-class individuals huddled in corners of trains, the giant slabs of meat cooked and consumed, the utter disappointment by travelers learning the one vendor is out of noodles. “The Iron Ministry” may not be as insightful as other films made by Sniadecki, but it still paints an essential portrait of contemporary China. Read more.
Michael Pattison, The House Next Door
Filming between 2011 and 2013, Sniadecki perhaps had too much material for his own good, and the process of trimming it all into a cohesive whole has resulted in something at once suitably chaotic and frustratingly unwieldy—but it’s sometimes a marvelous and frequently alarming snapshot of the country’s militantly upheld class divide. Read more.
Dan Schindel, Sound on Sight
The “Iron Ministry” is a sensory tour of a society in microcosm. After a while, the viewer may feel like they’re stuck on a train themselves. The sound of the grinding gears and levers is nightmarish, an diegetic soundtrack of total immersion. The cameras never leave the train, though there are frequent glimpses of the outside world. But these people and the audience are trapped, trapped in a pressure cooker. If only these characters had the “Snowpiercer” impulse to revolt. This documentary is a mesmerizing exploration of how we make do with where we are instead of revolting. Read more.
Andrei Sendrea, Criticwire
For a long time we don’t see anything, we can only hear the breathing and pounding of the great beast. After a while, the camera begins to trail through it’s rubber and metal veins, plastic corridors and so forth. The film turns to this aesthetic for a few other times, the most noticeable one being the shot of the fans mounted in a row on the ceiling, as if the beast had adapted in time to suit the conditions of its inhabitants. Read more.
Jay Weissberg, Variety
Neil Young, The Hollywood Reporter
The actual opening of the film is even more challenging, with three full minutes of black screen — briefly interrupted with the title card — accompanied by the churningly rhythmic cacophony of mechanized transportation. In what is clearly an editorial decision — and a questionable one at that — much of the overheard dialogue remains unsubtitled: 18 minutes pass before those unskilled in Mandarin will know what’s being said amid the hubbub. But this withholding technique is actually a structural ploy, setting us up for a truly astonishing, deadpan-hilarious monologue delivered by a startlingly precocious kid who looks no older than 10 or 11. Read more.