Friday, September 4, 2015

The Iron Ministry (update)

USA  China  (82 mi)  2014  d:  J.P. Sniadecki

Guest review by Evan Wang

With the perfect Mandarin he speaks, director J.P. Sniadecki doesn’t leave the audience much indication of his existence in this documentary, even though he is apparently involved in most of the conversations with other passengers. His face is never shown, but not deliberately hidden. Quite brilliantly, he managed to become an undistinguished part of the environment; an observer, but not more so than anyone else on the trains.

Being a member of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, where acclaimed documentaries Leviathan and Manakamana were produced, Sniadecki has obviously added a distinctive touch of his own to the lab’s elaborately conceived cinema vérité style. As shown in The Iron Ministry, his films might seem less “sensory” or meditative, but definitely have more to say on the ethnographic part, benefiting from the higher extent of involvement. After all, it is almost an impossible task to be a “fly on the wall” at probably the most packed location in the most populous country of this world.

After an opening that consists of complete darkness and the noise generated by a departing train, the audience is invited on board to start an overnight journey across China, which in fact took the filmmaker 3 years to shoot. Therefore, besides spatial dimensions, we are also travelling through time. In one of the very first eye-catching scenes, a blood-dripping liver just hangs there while someone doing his butcher works in the soiled cart. For me, a train-traveler in China for about 20 years, this is something I have never seen. According to Sniadecki, trains like that have already disappeared from the rails by the time the documentary is finished, and we would find ourselves in the comfy space inside the newest bullet trains toward the end of this film. Between these two points, we hear from all kinds of people from different parts of the country, talking about their stories, political opinions and future plans, including a “miracle kid” improvising a funny parody of the do’s and don’ts announced through the loudspeakers. More importantly, we also see them reading, knitting, dining, and sleeping in every available corner of the carts. Balancing all those are rather abstract shots of sceneries outside the windows, usually blurred by speed, and close-ups of curious mechanical parts on the trains, which reminded me of what I saw earlier this year in an American docudrama, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors. Also echoing that film, the sometimes disorganized collage is well unified by the delicate sound design, mixing together broadcasted music and chaotic tumult to an intriguing effect. At certain points, it is pretty much hypnotic, but for anyone who shares the same experience, only in the way that it is supposed to be during such a journey. At the end of it, the camera lingers on piles of discarded packages from instant food, and other trash waiting to be cleaned up. Instead of the most awful place to be trapped in for two days of your time, however, it looks more like the aftermath of a carnival. It is not just what goes on aboard the trains, a temporary respite before they reach their next destination, it is the life of Chinese people transitioning into the future.

Before going back to darkness, the last identifiable image that appears on the screen is an eye, probably from the train operator, once again implying what the film is really about. Theoretically, filming on trains is prohibited in China, but for Sniadecki and the people present in his film, what is not allowed to be documented, is seen.

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Postscript – guest reviewed earlier, The Iron Ministry, previously unseen by this viewer

THE IRON MINISTRY           B+               
USA  China  (82 mi)  2014  d:  J.P. Sniadecki                       film's website 

One of the better ways to learn about a new city or geographical region is to simply immerse yourself directly into the middle, walk around, and then pay close attention to what you observe.  This unusual film offers a window into the rapidly changing transition taking place in modern China.  Providing a snapshot of various journeys on China’s railway system, American filmmaker and academic J.P. Sniadecki creates an interesting experiment in social realism, using abstract experimental imagery to explore China’s changing place in the world.  Shot over the course of three years between 2011 and 2013 on different railway systems throughout contemporary China, the footage is cleverly edited together to create the impression of a single trip, what the director calls one “cinema-train,” where the resulting film takes place entirely inside the cramped space aboard the trains, and where each train starts and ends remains unclear, but the result is an incredibly intimate portrait of the Chinese population traveling throughout their own country.  A fascinating slice-of-life documentary where Sniadecki writes, shoots, directs, produces, edits, and is a sound recordist in a film that is amazingly ambitious, where the role of the filmmaker is like an unseen guide who may initiate conversations shown onscreen, where passengers may be seen talking directly to the filmmaker.  Sniadecki is an American born on a goat farm in Michigan, who grew up in the rustbelt of Northern Indiana, studied philosophy at Grand Valley State University, flying to Shanghai in May of 1999 to study Chinese philosophy and culture and has lived and worked for several years in China and has learned to speak fluent Chinese, making several earlier films in China including YUMEN (2013), about an abandoned oil town in China’s northwest Gansu Province, and PEOPLE’S PARK (2012), one continuous 78-minute long tracking shot on a summer afternoon through the crowded spaces of the People’s Park in Chengdu, Sichuan, where here as well the man with the movie camera is often stared at out of the corner of people’s eyes, but his identity is never revealed.  Beginning and ending in the pitch black of the train stations, the audience is introduced by means of sound alone, aided by the exquisite sound designer Ernst Karel, one of the key figures of the Sensory Ethnography Lab :: Harvard University (SEL), the school where the director pursued his doctorate in media anthropology, creators of an unembellished, starkly realistic style of documentary, where this film bears a close resemblance to Manakamana (2013).  The abstract nature of the initial images can be a bit unsettling, a black screen followed by geometric designs that bear no resemblance whatsoever to a recognizable reality, where it takes awhile before discovering you are actually on a train.  There’s no voiceover to place you where you are, as you’re never anchored to any specific event.  There’s no music track.  All you hear is the sound heard within the train itself.  As Sniadecki explains, from My Cultural Landscape: Planes, Trains, and Musicals:

To capture as many different encounters as possible, I took trains throughout China, striving to be thorough without a need to be exhaustive, compelled more by the desire for movement and encounter than by any documentary notion of coverage. I hopped on trains in many different corners of China, as well as through the major arteries of the railway system. Some rides were 40+ hours, others were 20 minutes. I never had a clear goal for each journey.

Ernst [Karel] is an amazing sound artist. I have informal training in music as well, so we approached the film’s sound design as a sonic composition. Attention to attack, release, resonant frequencies, atmosphere, dynamic range, and tonality all played a part in the design. We were open to and excited about the musicality of the train itself, whether by including songs actually played and recorded on the train, or by using the train sounds themselves to compose something akin to musique concrete.

The West is currently fascinated by China, by just how vast and huge it is, becoming a symbol of transition, where major cities have already built skyscrapers and modernized, offering a dream of prospective job opportunities, while the rural areas have yet to see similar signs of progress, where this film allows unique insight into an often unknown culture by providing such closeness into the everyday experience.  One of the things the film does best is provide insightful observations on personal space, where Sniadecki’s camera moves slowly throughout the economy class sections of overcrowded trains, where every inch of available space is inhabited by humans and their cargo, packed to capacity with exhausted riders sleeping on the floors as well as the aisles, where it’s inconceivable that this meets any safety standard, as should there be a fire or accident, it would be near impossible for anyone to escape.  Nonetheless, this super-confined space on the train provides the director an opportunity to mix himself into the conversations happening around him, where a whole range of conversations may discuss culture, politics, ethnicity or religion mixed together with other people who are just traveling, some are happily engaging in a drinking session, while others can be seen sleeping, reading, playing cards, or listening to music, where you’re forced to ignore or pay particularly close attention to those who are seen nearby.  The camera follows closely behind the train’s official vendor and his food cart as he sidesteps the stragglers on the floor, slowly navigating his way through the myriad of obstacles in the car offering packaged snack food, though he’s out of instant noodles, which is what everyone’s continually asking for.  Another view offers just a glimpse of the floor as someone attempts the futile job of sweeping underneath the seats and the aisles, creating a mass of garbage that is swept throughout the length of the train car.  Perhaps most surprising is seeing an elderly butcher smoking using a bamboo cigar-holder while hanging his freshly cut slabs of meat in an available open space on the train, blood still dripping on the floor, obviously selling his wares, where there’s no conceivable refrigeration, and who knows the length of his journey.  One of the shots is a view of oscillating fans attached to the ceiling which are the only means of ventilation.  At one stop, people are seen boarding the trains loaded up from head to toe with fresh farm produce, which they obviously intend to sell, carrying baskets of vegetables on each end of a pole around their shoulders, making it extremely difficult to get through the door, but when they do, they are easily consuming the space of about three individuals.  It becomes clear that Sniadecki is enamored with Chinese life and culture, where his interest becomes our interest, and his loose narrative allows us to submerge ourselves in his images and eavesdrop on nearby conversations.  By immersing the viewer so completely into the experience of riding a train, the film itself becomes part of the journey.. 

According to a New York Times interview with Sniadecki, Q. and A.: J. P. Sniadecki on China, Trains and ‘The Iron Ministry’, the term “Ministry” in the title refers specifically to “the Ministry of Railways, which was considered a secretive yet expansive ‘kingdom unto itself’ within a government known for its opacity.  The Chinese Ministry of Railways once had its own schools, courts, housing, factories, and police force.  The three years that I spent shooting this film coincided with the last three years of the Ministry’s reign as a separate world:  In March 2013, after high-level cases of corruption were exposed, the Ministry was officially dissolved and transformed into the state-owned China Railways Corporation.  It is said that control over this corporation is divided between China’s elites, and ongoing privatization and expansion have been easy to see.”  While the initial trains seen are so rickety and antiquated that they’ve already been eliminated by the nation’s new railway system, replaced by faster, more modernized trains.  Sniadecki spends more time in the chaos of the cheaper sections, barely lingering at all in the more upscale areas, which are quieter, considerably less populated, where passengers are seen sitting apart from one another and are usually engaged in solitary activities with their smartphones.  In an 80-minute film, most time is spent observing, while the conversations themselves comprise only about 20 minutes or so, where two women talk about the horrible wages and working conditions in factories, continually having to work longer hours, both yearning for something better.  Several articulate young men speak about the rising costs of housing, making it difficult to buy property, which becomes a demand by the family of the bride in prospective marriages, making it exceedingly difficult to marry young.  All seem to agree that subsidized housing is a joke, only given to those with political connections, a social condition not likely to change anytime soon as there is no democratic means to vote for a change, instead they can only idealistically hope that the Party will listen more and pay attention to those people they are supposed to represent.  If not, they may have to leave the country to seek a better life elsewhere.  This view is not all that different from American citizens losing faith in their government, where politicians often feel disconnected to those more ordinary citizens they were elected to serve.  There is an open discussion on Hui Muslim minorities in China, claiming it’s difficult to find mosques in China, yet whose mere existence allows one overly optimistic Han Chinese passenger to conclude that China treats all minorities well.  But this is countered by an intense intellectual discussion between Sniadecki and Tibetan author and activist Tsering Woeser (unidentified in the film, as she is simply seen as another passenger, who along with fellow Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei published a book documenting Tibetan self-immolations entitled Immolations in Tibet: The Shame of the World, while according to Prominent Tibetan Activist Tsering Woeser Claims ..., the government is suspected in deleting her recent post on Facebook referring to the self-immolation of Tibetan monk Pawo Kalsang Yeshi who was the 142nd monk to set themselves on fire in protest of Chinese rule in Tibet since 2009), one of the few Tibetan authors and poets to write in Chinese, yet who eloquently expresses how China is using trains and their ability to reach hard-to-access regions to literally rape Tibet economically by flooding the Tibet Autonomous Region with Chinese citizens into Tibet, with their primary goal being to create a suffocating economic stranglehold, where their presence is creating an elite, super rich class of Chinese, while previously the wealth was more evenly spread throughout the entire region, comparing Tibetans to American Indians, suggesting the role of the railroad industry in each instance was used for exploitation and genocide.  Because of her intimate familiarity with the subject, she was no ordinary passenger, but felt like a plant in perhaps a scene staged by the filmmaker in order to get this particular message across.  Easily the most amusing part of the film comes from a mischievous young boy perched in an upper bunk, seen making sarcastic train announcements in the beginning that take on a surreal quality, a moment that does not feel staged, but there’s absolutely no doubt that he was “performing” for the camera.  One is left wondering what this imaginative kid would be up to in another ten years or so: 

All passengers, your attention please. The 3838-438 train from the United States to Afghanistan is about to depart. We ask that those who are not aboard please take someone else’s luggage, take someone else’s wife, and hurry aboard. Those who have explosives, bombs, and other inflammable materials with them please hurry aboard and ignite them where there are crowds to contribute to our nation’s population control policy. The train is moving fast, so please extend your hands and head out of the window as far as possible, making it easier to lose them all at once.

This is a civilized train, so please feel free to piss, shit, and throw trash all over the aisle. Other passengers may spit on your face and you may spit in the mouths of others, which is good for the thorough absorption of protein. As a disposable train, this one has been operating safely for 30 years. If you discover your head over your feet, you’ve arrived at the last stop: Heaven.

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