J. P. Sniadecki’s clamorously atmospheric doc, “The Iron Ministry,” was shot across three years of the infernal, eternal expansion of the vast Chinese rail system. As the railways expand, Sniadecki rides the rails from 2011-2013 and traffics in sensory reportage as he meets passengers in the cramped confines, who bear blunt, wry attitude about class and cash under his direct cinema-styled eye—“What if you do have a ballot, and the choice is one more sonofabitch?” Then he assembles the travels as if we were all on a single, swift journey. Where are they headed? Where are we headed? Coolly formal yet ceaselessly tactile, his film works from lovely visual abstraction to the most material of physical concerns. “The Iron Ministry” engages filmmaking craft in subtly dynamic fashion and the sound design by Ernst Karel is immaculate, a song for ears that crave the sound of rail travel and the insistent buzz of human commerce. Sniadecki’s passengers also fixate on smell, a sense of cigarettes, animals being butchered, sweat, piss and shit insistently evoked. Sniadecki has worked with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, and collaborated on an earlier doc with that groundbreaking group’s Verena Paravel (“Sweetgrass,” “Leviathan”). 83m. (Ray Pride)
“The Iron Ministry” opens at Facets, Friday, August 21. A trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.