A pressed-tin floor, some accordion-ing flaps of white plastic, a steady chugging sway that you as a filmgoer might take some time to adjust to: J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, a study of train travel in China, opens as another detail-oriented docu-cine zone-out, an examination of all the everyday wonder you’ll notice if you stand someplace long enough. The film confines itself to inside the train cars, mostly, and it often demands you regard the minutiae more conventional documentaries omit: the bottle of water, disposable coffee cup, and junk-food bags all surrounding the head of a conked-out passenger sleeping face-down on a plastic table. But more often than that the faces are up, and our act of looking becomes — thankfully — an act of listening and understanding. Again and again, people here talk, about their lives or their plans or what they make of what China is becoming.
What emerges is a sense of an optimistic people well aware of how hard times can be but convinced they might be getting better. We meet a factory worker tired of making purses, heading to Suzhou to visit her “guy” and find a new job. She beams at the prospect, her smile a miracle. She’s a “common person,” she says, who “can only do manual labor,” but she’s hoping for work in a department store, for employment that might, as she puts it, “change my mood.” She announces, “My dream is not to work and then sleep all day.”
The talk is often frank. “Everyone’s got steamed buns to eat, so there’ll be no revolution, right?” a young man asks. He laughs — a little. That crack caps a sharp-elbowed discussion of the impact of commercial reality on young people’s love lives: “The housing market is forcing late marriages,” these men lament, since many middle-class mothers will not allow daughters to wed men who don’t own homes. One young man points out that it’s tradition fueling the boom: “The mother-in-law is the major factor boosting China’s real estate.”
The film is clear about how people feel and how they express it, to one another and to the filmmakers. What’s not clear is whether this is common out-in-public chatter, or whether it has been encouraged and elicited by interviewers. An employee of the railroad complains into the camera that the railroad has gotten too strict in recent years — and then, thinking better, asks, “Does your thing record sound?” He looks worried that he might be in trouble, but the film leaves it to us to work out whether that’s actually the case.
What are the potential consequences for him, for those young men, for the woman who bemoans, at length, the changes that have come to Tibet since the railroad has stretched there, too? At one point, in a more exclusive-looking car, a security guard demands that the documentary crew stop filming, an incident that draws our attention to how this film came to exist: As they shot, between 2011 and 2013, what else was off limits?
Sniadecki is an affiliate of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which produced Leviathan and Manakamana, and The Iron Ministry shares much of their approach, but it dares to break with the detached and observational mold, verging into the political. Of course, it’s always political when regular people speak plainly about their circumstances — here, it’s also moving, revelatory, and often funny, offering plenty to mull over during the long shots of train workers trundling their food carts.
The Iron Ministry
Directed by J.P. Sniadecki
Opens August 21, MoMA