Dir: J.P. Sniadecki | Dragons & Tigers | USA, China | 2014 | 82 mins
Before the film starts, the VIFF volunteer cautions the audience that there will be no subtitles for the first 18 minutes of the film, not due to any technical error, but because “that’s just the way the film works.” With this vague forewarning, it was hard to know what to expect of The Iron Ministry, a documentary about traveling on Chinese trains. This sense of anticipation and befuddlement turned out to be common themes for me in my film experience. At first, there is indeed no dialogue, and indeed not even any visuals, as the film begins with several minutes of a black screen and the discordant but oddly beautiful sounds of a train on the move. Without any visual distractions, I was able to marvel at the orchestra of screeches, hisses, whistles of the train on the railway tracks and the occasional rumbling percussion of a train engine.
With The Iron Ministry, documentary filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki, with an immense contribution from sound designer Ernest Karel, creates an immersive experience for the viewer. From filming a questionable meat butchery operation in one train car, to filming passengers sleeping in whatever nook or cranny or floor they can fit themselves into, Sniadecki manages to submerge the viewer in the experience of traveling in the overcrowded trains of China, with its chaotic sounds, smells and sights. What I was mainly struck by was just how many people there were on Chinese trains. China has got a lot of people, yo. In one long extended scene, Sniadecki follows a snack vendor and his trolley as he navigates the throngs and multitudes of folks hanging out in the aisles, tired travelers sleeping, and kids playing in the aisle, and then having to repeat at regular intervals that he has run out of instant noodles. Sniadecki was also able to film passengers, who, with the benefit of proximity and the length of the journey, are able to strike up lively and often humorous conversations with each other (as well as the filmmaker) about religion, their hopes and fears for their future, the concessions they’ve had to make to support their families, and even their insights into how their country is being run.
However, unlike documentaries that follow someone or a group of people through a particular journey, The Iron Ministry focuses more on the slice of life rather than a narrative. With this immersive focus, the film did require a certain amount of patience (as well as an iron stomach if you are susceptible to motion sickness, as I unfortunately was) but ultimately, The Iron Ministry is able to vividly depict the train system as a stage in China’s fast-moving progress and the way it affects the ordinary people caught in the middle.