AFI Fest 2014: ‘The Iron Ministry’ is a sensory tour of a society in microcosm

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ironThe Iron Ministry
Directed by J.P. Sniadecki
USA, 2014

The first few minutes of The Iron Ministry are a black screen overlaid with the sound of train machinery. The darkness goes on long enough that some patrons were muttering over whether or not the picture was being projected correctly. Gradually, however, images come into view, though hazy and out of focus; hard to identify. The gears and bellows of the train pulsate and throb. They don’t look mechanical. It looks like the workings of grey, diseased organs. The first sign of human activity is a closeup of cigarette butts sloshing in a water-filled nook. And then people themselves finally enter the picture, mites living in the larger host body of the train.

China has an extensive railway network, and it’s only spiderwebbed outwards in recent years, connecting the eastern part of the country to the remote mines of Tibet, which are primed for full exploitation now. One woman speaks of a Tibetan prophecy that one day men would ride iron birds through the sky and iron horses across the ground. The trains, she says, are iron dragons. The Iron Ministry is an 80-minute tour through the bowels of the dragons.

Early in the documentary, a delightfully precocious child yells a series of mock announcements to his fellow passengers on the train. “If you have any explosives on you,” he declares, “please run into the thickest crowd of people, in accordance with our population control policies.” The kid’s positively an Ai Weiwei in the making, summing up modern Chinese society with one pithy statement after another. “Your fellow passengers may spit in your face, and you may spit in their mouth!”

Separately, men from various parts of the country chat as they hang onto the handholds, swaying with the motions of the locomotive. Several of them are Hui (an ethnic group composed mainly of Muslims), a source of curiosity for the others. They talk through their religious differences in order to affirm that they are all Chinese. Likewise, a separate bunch declare their belief in the Chinese dream. This is a land of opportunity. They just have to work hard. The train is taking everyone where they need to go.


The Iron Ministry was filmed across China’s railroads over the course of three years, capturing a rich intersection of various people in transit. Like Snowpiercer, it moves across various parts of the train to see how its better-off passengers fare versus the poorer ones. In the back, people are crammed into every available space. Often, they share it with goods that have been brought aboard, like baskets full of produce or hanging meats. It hardly seems safe. One man hunches himself on top of a bathroom sink to sleep. Others berth in the connective sections between the cars. Frequently, officials asking for identification discover people who have snuck aboard illegitimately. And it’s all filthy. It’s even worse than Amtrak.

Further forward, the middle class fare better, organized into bed sections, sitting sections, and common area. There are concessions on carts and custodians to sweep their trash off the floor, tremendous waves of refuse gaining girth as the broom pushes them down the aisle. The filmmakers aren’t allowed to bring their cameras into first class, but it looks to be a lot cleaner and have a hell of a lot of space.

The Iron Ministry is a sensory tour of a society in microcosm. After a while, the viewer may feel like they’re stuck on a train themselves. The sound of the grinding gears and levers is nightmarish, an diegetic soundtrack of total immersion. The cameras never leave the train, though there are frequent glimpses of the outside world. But these people and the audience are trapped, trapped in a pressure cooker. If only these characters had the Snowpiercer impulse to revolt. This documentary is a mesmerizing exploration of how we make do with where we are instead of revolting.

Visit the official website of AFI Fest.

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