The Iron Ministry: Five Questions for J.P. Sniadecki

Wednesday 23 August, 2017

In anticipation of this weekend's On the Line season, we spoke with celebrated director J.P. Sniadecki about his latest feature, The Iron Ministry. Filmed over three years on China's railways, The Iron Ministry traces the vast interiors of a country on the move: flesh and metal, clangs and squeals, light and dark, language and gesture. Developed in collaboration with Harvard's acclaimed Sensory Ethnography Lab (LeviathanManakamana), the film immerses audiences in fleeting relationships and uneasy encounters between humans and machines on what will soon be the world's largest railway network.

J.P. Sniadecki is a filmmaker and anthropologist working predominantly in China and the United States. His previous films include Foreign Parts (2010), winner of two Leopards at Locarno and named best film at the Punto de Vista Film Festival and DocsBarcelona, and Yumen (2013), named best experimental film and best chinese film at the Taiwan International Film Festival. On its US release, The Iron Ministry was selected as A.O. Scott's "critics pick" in The New York Times, who described it as "a work of art - vivid and mysterious and full of life". 

The Iron Ministry will be screening this Bank Holiday Monday - you can find out more and book tickets here.

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FOR THOSE WHO ARE NEW TO YOUR WORK, CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AS A FILMMAKER AND YOUR APPROACH TO DOCUMENTARY?

Although I am trained as an anthropologist and employ the ethnographic method in my work, I am first and foremost a filmmaker interested in the formal possibilities of this young art form called cinema. My films are “studies” in the sense of sketches and experiments that emerge from the encounter between myself and the world, and not from an academic or commercial imperative. In addition to “The Iron Ministry," I’ve made three other features and two shorts in China: “Songhua” (2007), a short film, which examines the relationship between Harbin residents and their mother river, “Demolition” (2008), which focuses on the urban landscape and the experience of migrant workers, city dwellers and the filmmaker in this era of rapid urban change, “The Yellow Bank” (2010), another short which portrays Shanghai from the bow of a commuter ferry during a total solar eclipse, "People's Park", a single-take film that draws inspiration from Chinese painting (most notably, "Along the River During the Qing Ming Festival", http://bit.ly/2ddtjxg) to traverse an urban park in Chengdu, and “Yumen,” a psycho-collage film about a once-booming oil town that has now become a site for ruins, ghosts and performance.  Most recently, I've completed El Mar La Mar (2017) with Joshua Bonnetta, which has been described as an "ethno-horror doc" about the Sonoran Desert borderlands between Mexico and the United States (http://bit.ly/2vXI00y).

 

WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO CHINA'S RAILWAYS AND HOW DID YOU FIRST CONCEIVE OF THE CONCEPT FOR THE FILM?

Like most of my films, the impetus comes from my own life and daily experience. Ever since my first long-distance train journey in 1999, and throughout my time living between the US and China, China’s railways were my primary classroom for learning Mandarin and, like the vast majority of Chinese people, the primary means to get around.  Of course, there is also the longstanding relationship between trains, cinema and modernity, and I knew countless films could be made from the encounters and experiences of rail travel. But it wasn’t until I moved to Beijing from 2010 to 2013 that I began to film on trains.

At the time, I would often travel to visit friends, to conduct fieldwork for my dissertation on Chinese independent documentaries and to make my own films, such as “People’s Park” (2012) and “Yumen” (2013). I had a compact manual camcorder that quickly became an extension of my body. I was taking different lines and different classes and different trains — from old collectivist-era trains to high-speed bullet trains — and I gradually realized that I was in fact making a film, or the film, that I had imagined over a decade earlier. I started to film on every train ride, and even took a few trains precisely for the purpose of filming, such as the train to Tibet and the train through Wenzhou, where the tragic accident of July 2011[a train crash that killed 40 people] happened. But the majority of the filming was conducted on trains I was taking for personal reasons, for my dissertation research, or for my own filmmaking. Instead of wanting to tell one person’s story or investigate some social issue, I let the filming process guide the project, so the film is at once diaristic and ethnographic, moving both inward and outward, like filmmaking itself.

 

HOW DID YOU EXPLAIN YOUR PRESENCE TO THE PASSENGERS ON BOARD?

By being honest and open. Each time you board a train, you enter a temporary community. And, within that community, each train car is a unique social space. One of the main challenges was learning how to inhabit these spaces, how to move and be among my fellow passengers and the train workers, how to position myself and the camera. Each social space was constantly changing, as passengers would get on and off the trains at various stations. So some exchanges were short-lived, others lasted the entire train ride, and I spent considerable time introducing myself — and the project — to each new person I worked with. I'd normally just be a human being, talking and sharing, and transparent. I'd let them know who I was, where I was from, and that I was trying to make a film on trains. Some people asked not to be filmed, and as I'm not very interested in assaulting people with my camera, I'd respect their request. Many others were fine with the filming, and some even sought out the camera lens. 

Another challenge was the difficulty in shooting without official permission. On every ride, the train workers and train chiefs would question me and often stop me from filming. They would sometimes be aggressive, other times polite and understanding. Sometimes, after speaking with me and getting to know my process, they would encourage my filming, though this was a rare occurrence. 

 

THE FILM IS FULL OF FRANK AND FAR REACHING CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN PASSENGERS, DO YOU THINK THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT TRAVELLING ON A TRAIN THAT ENCOURAGES OPENNESS IN PEOPLE?

By constructing a highly intense yet temporary social space, train travel can construct a fleeting openness, yes. Trains host ephemeral encounters which often enable heightened candidness and intimacy between passengers. And they form constantly shifting social spaces where humans have no choice but to deal with one another’s existence in order to survive the length of the journey. 

 

THE FILM IS SHOT OVER A LONG PERIOD OF TIME RATHER THAN JUST ONE JOURNEY, HOW MUCH FOOTAGE DID YOU SHOOT AND WHAT WAS YOUR EDITING PROCESS?

I shot over 200 hours, with tons of footage of train platforms, train stations, ticket booths, etc, but I decided to jettison all footage that was not shot on the train itself, and to withhold as much as possible from relying on the iconic shots of landscapes whipping past the train window (a kind of enchanting proto-cinema, of course, but definitely well-documented and utilized in other works). These constraints helped limit the material.  Then over several months, I built a structure that presents a kind of visual history of China's railway system: from old "green-skin" trains to the latest high-speed trains.  But rather than rely on this structure entirely, I went back and disrupted it by mixing trains from different eras, so that this linear structure might become more complicated, as well as show the co-existence of these technologies and classes.  I also decided that language as dialogue - as meaning - would not enter the film until at least 19-20 minutes into it, so that audiences could attend to the full sensual experience of the train without the interference of words.