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Another VIFF Gem: 'The Iron Ministry'

Following this season's track record of great films on trains, here's a festival must-see.

Dorothy Woodend 27 Sep

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

One of the best things a film can do is immerse you fully in another reality. The effect can be discomfiting sometimes, painful even, but worth a bit of suffering. It's a useful reminder that we’re all on the same journey, each carrying our hobo sacks, slogging along and stuck in various compartments. Whether you’re in the front car or the back of the caboose, it's all the same train, man.

Nothing makes this more explicitly clear than J.P. Sniadecki's new film The Iron Ministry, screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival in early October before chugging off to the New York Film Festival. The film hails from the same aesthetic school -- the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University -- that fostered the work of filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (Leviathan) and Ilisa Barbash (Sweetgrass). Sniadecki’s earlier films (People's Park and Foreign Parts) were also part of this group.

Founded in 2006, the Sensory Ethnography Lab has remade the observational documentary, turning out films that challenge preconceived notions of ethnography, art and cinema. The essential ethos of this work is summed up in a New York Times article: "If life is messy and unpredictable, and documentary is a reflection of life, should it not be digressive and open-ended too?"

"Why shore," as my grandfather used to say, but it ain’t always pretty. Leviathan, a great, heaving beast of a film that screened at VIFF in 2013, had to be assailed in the same fashion Captain Ahab addressed a certain cream-coloured whale. Like Melville's epic, Leviathan, a film about North America's fishing industry, was full of seamen and death. Many a serious cinephile couldn't take it, and the toll on the filmmakers themselves is the stuff of legend. (Paravel was sent to the emergency room a number of times during the film's production.) No one ever said documenting life was going to be easy.

Sweetgrass was more bucolic in nature, concerning as it did a sheep drive that seemed to take place almost in real time. As the sheep trotted forth, bleating over the landscape like a moving carpet and were presided over by bored cowboys talking on their cellphones, you could almost forget that you had another existence. Such was the immersive nature of this style of filmmaking. It also occasionally put folks to sleep. As the profile piece in the New York Times makes clear, none of this is new: "[Levianthan’s] quest to find fresh ways of seeing, to push the limits of cinema as a tool for both capturing reality and heightening the senses, was precisely the one that, as far back as the 1920s, compelled the Soviet master Dziga Vertov to formulate his concept of the camera as an all-seeing, endlessly perfectible Kino-Eye."

While The Iron Ministry shares some commonalities with these earlier works, it is much more intimately concerned with the movement of human beings. Filmed over the course of three years on the railway arteries that traverse the People's Republic of China, it is a long, meandering journey to some unknown location. A lot like life.

Life is a train

The film begins in complete darkness with the keening whine of heavy equipment, the sound of metal couplings grinding and wailing like some infernal symphony. This blackness and noise drags on for more than three minutes and the effect is profoundly discombobulating, as though you were being born again into a confusing and chaotic world full of sound and fury without knowing where you are or where the hell you're going.

Once you have your bearings and figure out -- "Hey, I’m on a train!" -- things make more sense. As the camera makes its way through crowded compartments, you find yourself in an impromptu kitchen where someone has hung a hunk of bleeding liver over a door, and cigarette butts slosh about in a nearby urinal. Welcome to gritty, shitty old reality. Both the glory and the horror of life are here, immediate and stinking in all their blunt, rude force.

The analogy of society as a train came to bloody, surging life this summer with Bong Joon-ho's epic film Snowpiercer and it's impossible to watch The Iron Ministry and not conflate the two films in spots. In the science fiction dystopia of Snowpiercer, society's classes are separated into head and tail sections of the train, delineated by status and wealth -- richies in the front, poories in the back. In The Iron Ministry, the train compartments reserved for those who can pay are populated by clutches of businessmen, all apparently in various states of inebriation.

These sections are only briefly glimpsed, as the filmmaker is quickly hustled out the door by security personnel who inform him, "You can’t film here." No matter, there's much more action in the cheap seats anyway, where families are carrying on, people are getting drunk and arguing about politics, and folks are passed out cold in poses that would confound a seasoned yogi.

The film's most bravura moment comes from the mouth of a precocious kid, issuing a perfect imitation of the disembodied train announcements while lolling on top of a compartment bunk. In a seemingly impromptu soliloquy, he asks passengers with bombs to please board the train and to ensure that their devices are set off in the most crowded sections. Other passengers are told to stick their heads and bodies out of the window as far as possible, the better to get pieces chopped off. Still others are incited to throw garbage and shit everywhere, and spit directly in each other's mouths for a more thorough absorption of protein. It's an extraordinary performance.

A film such as this, where people talk, eat, ignore the authorities and generally behave badly, reminds us of humanity's singularities and similarities. We are all the same -- messy, cranky humans full of appetite and eager to opine about this and that and the other.

Pure voyeurism

The Iron Ministry is not without its challenges. As a Canadian used to large and often completely empty stretches of country, witnessing the cumulative effect of so many bodies crowded into such a small space is something I found oddly terrifying. Such a reality -- like that of Leviathan's fishing boat, or the sheep swarm of Sweetgrass -- necessitates certain survival techniques, namely the ability to eat and sleep anywhere, regardless of who might be looking.

The level of disinterest or obliviousness to what the filmmaker is doing provides for a voyeuristic level of access. In sleeping cars and causeways, the camera is free to roam over and around people's bodies and faces, crawling over slumped, snoozing humans who've passed out in whatever space they are allotted. It probably helps that the director speaks fluent Mandarin, but for an occasional conversation with passengers, he remains a largely invisible presence. This allows the all-seeing Kino-Eye to offer the audience a means to access experiences other than our own. In this aspect, we are right back to Dziga Vertov, whose film Man with a Movie Camera was recently voted by a Sight & Sound poll -- even yours truly got to vote -- as the greatest documentary of all time.

While essentially an observational documentary, The Iron Ministry does not shy away from the more interesting stuff, such as ordinary people talking about religion and politics. In one telling section, four young men discuss how hard it is to find a wife, the vagaries of in-laws, communist propaganda, and whether to stay in China or emigrate. As one guy says, "If the pollution gets much worse, I’m going to vote with my legs and just walk out." His companions snort and hoot at this, even as a train custodian, sweeping up piles of garbage, barks at them to move their feet.

The sound editing is truly a marvel. Never is there a moment of true silence, or even stillness. In one extended sequence, the camera trails behind a vendor selling snacks and drinks. In every corner of the frame there is human presence: the squeal of little kids, sullen teenagers demanding different brands of noodles, and adults talking, all overlaid with Chinese pop music that suffuses the air with cotton-candy flavoured vocals. Full props to sound editor Ernst Karel who marshals the sounds of this great teeming mass of humanity -- eating, sleeping, snoring and farting, inside the glottal roar of the ever-present engine -- and creates a thing of beauty, a veritable aural buffet of colour and texture.

The final scene of the film might seem a little too on the nose, but there's no mistaking its beauty and power. As the high scream of metal-on-metal fades into the blackness, the passage of human souls along with it, it's difficult not to be overcome by the fleeting nature of the cinema and time, wed together. There go we all at some point.

One more to see, one to avoid

Of the hundreds of films at VIFF, I would also highly recommend Simone Rapisarda Casanova's The Creation of Meaning. Don't be put off by the poncy title; this is a terrific film, a mournful, beautiful cinematic sojourn in the Tuscan Alps near the Gothic Line. Like the filmmaker's first film The Strawberry Tree, Meaning takes a similar intimate and nuanced view watching the people and proceedings of this place with an equanimous eye. A gorgeous human portrait, this is precisely the kind of film that you should seek out at the festival. It is art, pure and lovely.

Unfortunately, not many good things can be said about the festival's opening film, Wild. Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir became one of Oprah's Book Club 2.0 picks, and now the film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon is entering theatres. I'll spare you the slog and simply say that any film that is packed to the ceiling with sex, death, heroin, and hiking should elicit some tiny bit of emotion. But everything rings false. Little Witherspoon leads with her chin, but she's altogether too much of a chipmunk to portray a former drug and sex addict. Mostly, it seems like she forgot to shower that morning.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, Wild aims hard for catharsis and profundity. But smeary Vaseline sentiment coats the story, begging the audience to feel, feel and feel some more for poor little Cheryl as she grunts and groans along her 1,100-mile hike to find balance and inner peace. The book had its moments, but the film manages to rob the original story of any authenticity and replace it with endless flashbacks, occasionally even flashbacks within flashbacks, all pasted over by Simon and Garfunkel songs. It is a long, dull trudge.

But the films are only one station on your journey. Festivals such as VIFF, after all, are social events, and there's a large portion of pleasure to be had simply by hanging out and talking to people. It has always surprised me, given the fairly stand-offish nature of Vancouver folk, that festival lineups often lead to people talking candidly to those next in line. Recommendations about what to see and what to avoid are freely offered and taken. At the hairdresser the other day, I eavesdropped on an elderly lady who was having her hair coloured in a particularly vivid auburn in time for VIFF. There was something indescribably sweet about this idea, of preparing to go out and be with your fellow citizens, to talk some film.  [Tyee]

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