The filmmakers of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab often cite as inspiration James Agee’s description of documentary work as “the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.” Of course there’s nothing simple about it: at their best, the SEL films (Sweetgrass, Foreign Parts, People’s Park, Leviathan, Manakamana) remind us that reality, when fully perceived, is always too much—too much to see, too much to hear, too much to bear. Their very tactility communicates the burden of representation, the source of Agee’s agonizing in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. “Perhaps most keenly they feel the stifling domestication of film,” the documentarian David MacDougall wrote of filmmakers after Agee, “which by its naming and cosseting of life shields viewers from the very things they are meant to discover.” MacDougall goes on to observe that this frustration can lead to “a streak of cruelty” towards both the audience and documentary itself: “an onslaught on the senses ... a taunting of conventional writing”—in a word, Leviathan (2012). Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s infernal vision of an industrial fisher takes SEL’s aesthetic program to an extreme: not only no exposition, but hardly any intelligible speech at all; not only a reorientation of documentary away from a complacent humanism, but an aggressively alien perspective; not just visceral, but actual viscera. Leviathan is close to madness and as such, a world apart from the “discourses of sobriety” with which scholar Bill Nichols grouped documentary film. One may be tempted to read an apotheosis in the face of such intensity—many have—and yet I’m still not sure that Leviathan represents the ne plus ultra of sensory ethnography so much as a new form of abstract expressionism.
This was all on my mind watching The Iron Ministry, a thrillingly expansive portrait of China gleaned from the cramped compartments of its trains. J.P. Sniadecki, who has made several other films in China (Demolition, People’s Park, Yumen) as well as one in Queens (Foreign Parts, co-directed with Paravel), shot material for The Iron Ministry over three years riding the rails. Though fashioned to unfold as if a single voyage, the film splices together the crowded “green skin” trains with the more modern “red skin” models and deluxe bullet trains—a deliberate montage cutting across class lines and the distinct historical moments comprising “contemporary” China.
As with Leviathan and Manakamana, The Iron Ministry opens as a sound piece: three minutes of metal machine music, the eerie cries of the rails. (There is a touch of Genesis in the way these films drop us into a world before light.) The camera starts by exploring the train’s industrial surfaces in voluptuous and unfamiliar detail, with the violent rocking of the carriages intimately registered by Sniadecki’s handheld. The boarding process seems out of time: farmers hoisting great baskets full of vegetables; a man expertly skinning a coconut; meat flensed and hung to dry in between compartments, the shock of red flesh juxtaposed by the train’s cold metallic surfaces.
One thing we do not see is the passing landscape. Sniadecki avoids the scenic aspects of train travel, instead focusing our attention on the human scene at hand—its density and decibel level. Indeed, the jammed trains at the outset of the film simply do not afford an observational point of the view. It is literally a provocative space—the camera is harried, jolted, blocked—and Sniadecki chooses a marvelous scene to signal the inevitable turn towards the social. After more than 15 minutes of wordless immersion, a young boy uncorks a hilarious caricature of official speech from his upper berth:
The 3838-438 train from the United States to Afghanistan is about to depart. … 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. … 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.
At a single stroke, he disrupts both society’s conventions and the film’s aesthetic. The fact that the boy is obviously performing for the camera adds another degree of contingency. Twice an outsider, the American filmmaker amplifies what is already a space of unexpected encounters.
This becomes especially clear during a scene in which Sniadecki’s conversation with two Hui Muslims is interrupted by a pair of Han Chinese. They ask earnest questions (“Now that you’ve left home for work, do you still have your faith?”) but also speechify about China’s benevolence towards its minorities. The two Hui men, initially quite open with Sniadecki, are now palpably on guard. Are the Han passengers genuinely curious about Hui life? Performing for the camera? Policing the public space? It’s likely a mix of all three, but the ambiguity gives Sniadecki’s long take a terrific jolt as sociology done on the fly.
Not all of the interactions between passengers are so tense. A scene in which two women compare notes on wages and working conditions, for instance, is no less suggestive for its apparent calm. Economics are also highlighted in the passengers’ interactions with vendors, most notably in a long take shadowing a food cart. The vendor is sold out of instant noodles, the one thing everyone seems to want (again, this comedy of the everyday). On a roomier “red skin” train, another salesman demonstrates his miraculous polish on an unhappy teenager’s sneakers (the boy wants his Converse to be dirty, a sure sign of advanced capitalism). The encounters with railway employees are similarly varied. One incident of an officer ordering Sniadecki to stop filming is allowed to stand for all the others. On the other side of the coin, a soft-spoken official gives the camera an anxious look after realizing that his innocent but open reflections regarding changes in the railroad administration have been recorded.
The Iron Ministry’s subtle structure allows us to understand the film’s gradual move towards more traditional interviews as a condition of a corresponding shift in the class-specific space of filming. In one shot, Sniadecki can barely handle the camera as he accepts a shot of liquor at a crowded table; later on, he listens patiently to an intellectual explain the situation in Tibet. Similarly, the volatility of the scene between the Hui and Han men is reframed in an ostensibly calmer political discussion between four young friends sitting comfortably in a booth. They talk about real estate, marriage, corruption, pollution, voting, and, especially, emigration. The debate is lively, but fragile: one senses the great difficulty of finding a middle path between dropping out and following the party line (it was only later that I realized that one of the four friends never says a word). As the conversation peters out, a worker comes by sweeping up trash. Sniadecki, sensing his great luck in this continuity of abstract ideas and material reality, follows the trash collector’s pile to the last car.
Here in this shot, as with the film as a whole, Sniadecki yokes together different modes of documentary to illuminate a similarly multifaceted social terrain. Tangential to this, The Iron Ministry provides a welcome reminder that sensory ethnography need not preclude old-school documentary virtues like testimony and reportage. Maybe it’s not Agee but rather the eyes of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men who speaks for Sniadecki’s census: “Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop,” Walker Evans advised. “Die knowing something. You are not here long.” He liked shooting on trains, too.
MAX GOLDBERG is a writer and archivist based in Oakland, California. His work has appeared in Cinema Scope and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, among other publications.