This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.
"The Iron Ministry," J.P. Sniadecki's latest "Chinese" observational documentary (the director, who was born in Michigan, has been living and filming in China for more then ten years), had its world premiere at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival. The film was shot between 2011 and 2013, and documents the life of migrant workers (though it almost never makes a point of it) traveling on the country’s ever expanding railroad system.
Another highlight of this year’s festival was the screening of "Modern Times" with live orchestra accompaniment — a tribute to Charlie Chaplin and his most famous character, the Tramp, who made his first appearance on film a hundred years ago. With almost 80 years between them, these two films provide interesting insights on how our relationship with machine has evolved over time.
The connection may be somewhat lost on the reader at first. "Modern Times" is obviously a reflection of its own times, both in terms of the themes it deals with (social unrest and technological advance) and the cinematic means it employs to reveal/underline them (Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and the films of Sergei Eisenstein are strongly referenced). The lives of the people riding the trains in "The Iron Ministry," on the other hand, seem to float in an atemporal bubble. The trains move at such speeds that it is almost impossible to discern any reference points outside the windows, individual trees melt into forests, or else the train just passes through indistinct terrain and dark tunnels. When they slow down, or halt, the outside world that flows in, is a mass of contradictions: huge apartment buildings, misty and (apparently) uninhabited or abandoned, seem to be the setting of some sort of end-of-history disaster, while at other times, people boarding with baskets full of raw meet will set the time back, to the advent of the iron horse.
"Modern Times" posed the challenge of technologization and its influence on human life, the times were modern, new, and had to be dealt with. This is most evident in the parallel sequences when Charlot, and then his supervisor, get trapped in the machine, rolling along between the giant cogwheels. The physical representation of the machine is an intricate, organized, but indescribable metallic bundle of wheels, switches, pistons and bolts, that occasionally shoots steam, fire sparks or electricity. It is the representation of something that we don’t understand, an artificial contraption.
In Sniadecki's documentary, we are past the point of modernity. They are all inside the machine, and there is nothing new, nor frightening about it. The film starts in the manner of "Leviathan" (directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel). For a long time we don’t see anything, we can only hear the breathing and pounding of the great beast. After a while, the camera begins to trail through it’s rubber and metal veins, plastic corridors and so forth. The film turns to this aesthetic for a few other times, the most noticeable one being the shot of the fans mounted in a row on the ceiling, as if the beast had adapted in time to suit the conditions of its inhabitants. But this focus on the machine doesn’t last for long, and "Leviathan," which was released while Sniadecki was still shooting, might have worked either as an inspiration for these first shots, or as a deterrent from doing something similar. Whatever the case, "The Iron Ministry" turns into a film that deals entirely with the people on board. The machine is still there though, the sounds of the wheels rolling, the squeaks and cracks of metal on metal, or just the indistinct sound of something artificial at work, are always present. They become part of everyday life on the train, along with the fast fleeting images outside the window, the finite universe inside, and the sensation of moving without moving. The machine here is such a strong presence, that it is assimilated in its entirety, and becomes unnoticeable, like the earth we walk on, or the air we breathe, an ubiquitous absence.
Chaplin emphasizes the use of technology by the ruling class, in order to turn the worker into a de facto slave: the owner can see his employees slacking off, and is considering buying a feeding machine that would reduce lunch breaks to a minimum. Indirectly, the automatization of his own physical work, brings the main character on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Inside the trains of "The Iron Ministry," the only class distinction is the one between economy and first class. At one point, Sniadecki sneaks into what appears to be a first class wagon. The seats don’t look much better, and are empty, except for a couple of business men in suits, all checking their phones. Inside the machine, the ruling class, if we were to call them that, seem to be at a disadvantage: they are always traveling with a very specific goal, a business meeting of some sort, and that means they are still working. The working class on the other had, have no such worries: they can lie down and sleep or listen to music, drink hard alcohol from bottle caps and smoke, or just make conversation with their neighbor.