For those absolutely convinced of the genius of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s “Leviathan,” along comes J.P. Sniadecki (“People’s Park”) with his sensory documentary “The Iron Ministry.” Sniadecki, co-director with Paravel on “Foreign Parts” and also a member of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, spent three years shooting on trains in China — old and new, congested and spacious. Designed as a broadly impressionistic vision of the ways the country’s vast railroad system is used, the pic is non-ideological and intermittently engrossing, catering to viewers especially drawn to this type of non-narrative docu filmmaking. Fests will naturally board.
The helmer, fluent in Mandarin, alternates between engaging with passengers and shooting what he sees in a closely observational style. Nothing is directly identified, neither locale nor timeframe, and the editing has no geographic logic. Instead, Sniadecki offers a formally controlled look at the range of classes, the implied changes wrought by China’s economic boom, and the interactions particular to train travel. Refreshingly, Sniadecki allows the film — or rather, some passengers — to engage in politics, from the rights of minorities to economic pressures. While cerebral in intent and planning, the pic doesn’t feel overly straitjacketed by theory and offers unexpected moments of amusement.
Sniadecki opens with shots of accordion-like connectors between train cars, lensed so closeup as to be abstract. The disorienting effect acts like the antithesis of Soviet glorifications of machine energy, in which every movement is a vital celebration of progress: Here, there’s a sense of aging infrastructure and outmoded technology, furthered by the next shot of a toilet bowl full of cigarette butts (several of Sniadecki’s trains have since been taken out of commission). Even more disconcerting is the image that follows, of raw calves’ livers hanging from a hook in a dirty passage by the car door. An expanded view of the compartment reveals a host of meats in a makeshift onboard butcher stall, a sight guaranteed to put most viewers off certain types of Chinese train travel.
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The helmer alternates between these sorts of cramped, aging conveyances and sleek, modern carriages — it’s difficult to tell whether he’s imposed an editing scheme, or if the documentary has been put together more or less based on impressionistic sensations. Crowded, filthy train cars chock-a-block with people and possessions suddenly give way to clean, antiseptic ones where social contact is far more standoffish than it is among the communal, village-like scrum on regional lines. Attention wanes when Sniadecki spends too long trailing an official snack-cart vendor — viewers may feel the urge to anticipate the employee’s responses with their own “No, instant noodles are sold out,” and others will be wondering, “Are we there yet?”
Of greater interest are scenes in which Sniadecki observes interactions or becomes an active participant in conversations, as when a Hui Muslim heading for Shangrao chats with fellow passengers who sing the praises of China’s policies towards ethnic minorities (no, it’s not a joke). Elsewhere, a woman complains of low wages and long factory hours, while in a train near or in Tibet, a political activist talks about minor industrialists coming to Lhasa and making fortunes at the expense of locals. On yet another journey, young middle-class men express concern about the country’s environmental policies, and discuss the possibility of emigrating. Humor, often conspicuously absent in sensory ethnography docus, crops up occasionally, especially when a young boy in one of the better sleeper cars runs through an invented, and very funny, litany of dos and don’ts on trains.
Handheld visuals are fluid, almost freeform, yet very much aware of what is being kept in and out of the frame; long passages without even a glimpse of a window provide a claustrophobic feeling suitable to the jammed cars. The sensation of movement, and the jerky swaying of the trains, is also a constant, as is the noise of the tracks — for some a lullaby, for others inescapable clatter.