The best non-fiction film I’ve seen in 2014 is J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, an immersive, ethnographic documentary culled from footage shot aboard Chinese commuter trains over a span of three years. Sniadecki’s deceptively simple premise posits a single “cinematic train” as a metaphor for the various tensions — political, economic, social, and religious — that exist just beneath the surface of contemporary Chinese society. I sat down with J.P. at the Chicago International Film Festival to discuss his training at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the evolution of his personal aesthetic, and his exhilarating new film. Much like The Iron Ministry itself, this transcription represents mere fragments of a much longer conversation.
MGS: You studied at the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL). So they’re a production company you’re affiliated with but they didn’t produce The Iron Ministry?
JPS: As far as I am aware, SEL is not a production company. It didn’t produce The Iron Ministry, but the film has connections to the SEL in that I am one of the mostly filmmaker-anthropologists who are affiliated with the Lab and sometimes work together, provide feedback for one another’s work, and share a technological infrastructure. Lucien Castaing-Taylor first set up the lab and a related year-long SEL course in 2006, which coincided with my start at Harvard as an MA student in East Asian Studies. His idea was to create an interdisciplinary practice-based laboratory to bring together the social sciences, art practice, and nonfiction cinema. From the start, Stephanie Spray, Diana Allan, Toby Lee, and myself were graduate students most closely connected to the Lab. Jeff Silva was an important teaching assistant and Ernst Karel was (and still is) the Lab manager and resident sound artist/expert. Together we formed a sort of working group of collaboration and critique that sought new and often radical approaches to making nonfiction film and media anthropology. Two or three years later, Verena Paravel got involved as a student of the course (though she already had her PhD in anthropology at the time). She was new to filmmaking and, while working on her first short film for the class, she encountered the industrial enclave of Willets Point in Queens. She had seen my 2008 film Chaiqian (Demolition), which takes place almost entirely on a demolition site in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and wanted to work together as co-directors on the Willets Point project. We went to Queens together and from the first day of shooting had a totally exciting and invigorating experience collaborating in the junkyards and autoshops of Willets Point. We never looked back: we shot for two years there together, and released Foreign Parts in 2010. Then, I moved back to China to do my dissertation fieldwork, and also began the years of shooting the footage that became The Iron Ministry, while also making several other films: People’s Park (2012), Yumen (2013), and a short, The Yellow Bank (2010). Verena and Lucien began work on what became Leviathan and, shortly thereafter, Stephanie and Pacho (Velez) started shooting Manakamana. As I said, I made a couple of other films with other people while conducting fieldwork, such as the 78 minute single-shot documentary People’s Park (2012) (co-directed with Libbie Cohn), and Yumen (2013), a 16mm psycho-collage/wounded musical film among the ruins of China’s first oil town in Gansu province, made with artists Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang… All this to say, SEL is a small community of people without a dogma or manifesto, but with working collaborations and personal relationships that have produced work beyond the norms of both mainstream documentary and visual anthropology. It’s a collective spirit and a shared desire to explore new approaches rather than the formulaic.
MGS: Thank God for that. What differentiates The Iron Ministry from SEL films like Leviathan and Manakamana is that you actually interact with some of your subjects, which I thought was interesting. You don’t do formal interviews but I heard you talking off-camera; at least I assume that was you . . .
JPS: Yeah. I’m behind the camera and asking questions . . .
MGS: Was that your strategy when you started the film or did it happen organically while you were making it?
JPS: Most everything that happens in my films happens organically. I wanted this film, like most of my other films, to be born of the countless and ramifying encounters that emerged from carrying a camera with me on all those 55 rides on the train: encounters between me and the train, and between me and the people on the train, and between themselves, and between all of us and the train system itself. And I wanted to give space for all the different kinds of cinema that a train can produce. So, rather than seize one form of cinema the train can engender, I was receptive to all that I could perceive. There’s a value in sticking to the beastly bowels of the train and the mechanics of the train, and not let anyone speak to the camera and just present the passengers as exhausted and suffering bodies. But I wanted to be open to the overflowing amount of language that fills the train. As I got to know fellow passengers, people wanted to talk to me about what’s on their mind, whether it’s politics or it’s a child back home or the excitement and fear of a new lease on life. I didn’t aim for particular sound bites or hunt out certain topics. These are just discussions and moments that came up after spending hours and hours and hours on trains. I shot this for three years. That’s a lot of hours I spent on trains. And, in some ways, though probably not immediately apparent, the film’s style also refers to a more personal form of filmmaking that reveals as much about me behind the lens as it does about the people and the technology in front of the lens. It is a diary film of all those hours I spent on the train.
MGS: How much footage did you shoot?
JPS: Probably 200 (hours). And I have footage of trains moving through the landscape: exterior shots of beautiful snow-capped mountains and trains cutting through, trains snaking through different tunnels, crowds of people moving through train stations, people in front of the train stations sleeping on newspapers waiting for their train to depart, families saying goodbye on platforms. I made the decision to just keep it all on one train, to build a kind of cinematic train by stitching together all these different journeys.
MGS: Trains and movies are kind of a match made in heaven — going all the way back to the earliest days of cinema.
JPS: The Lumieres.
MGS: Yeah! Another thing I thought when watching your film is that it seems like you’re presenting a kind of diverse cross-section of contemporary Chinese society in terms of class, gender, age, etc. Was that one of your goals — to paint a kind of broad portrait of modern China?
JPS: It wasn’t one of my goals. I did want to capture, perhaps in an indirect way, the deep anxiety over the present and the future that pervades the lives of many Chinese today. The interpretation of the film as a cross-section of China is something that emerges with the viewer, and with the editing scheme of moving in a way chronologically from the older “greenskin” trains to the high-speed bullet trains, presenting a visual history of China’s railway network. And the inclusion of perspectives from not just Han Chinese, the majority of China’s population, but also from Hui Muslims, Uighurs, and Tibetans. But China is much too diverse, much to complex, and much to expansive for any one film to offer a cross-section.
MGS: Oh, really?
JPS: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to ride trains all over China and I was mostly motivated first by I was motivated by the history of the train compartments and the trains themselves. So I knew I wanted to record the “greenskin trains,” as you see like when the liver is hanging and the people are chopping meat . . .
MGS: Which was really eye-opening.
JPS: Yes. I could’ve made the whole film that train, which used to run between Zizhong and Chengdu, in Sichuan province. That train doesn’t exist anymore. So these trains are being taken off the network, but they’re also wrapped up with a whole affective realm of nostalgia . . . you know, journalists are writing articles about these trains because they’ve been such a part of the fabric of everyday life in China. People had to ride them for hours, sitting on wooden benches, opening the window to keep cool in sweltering days or just to light up a smoke. But because they’re disappearing there’s something of a salvage-ethnography project involved here. But I also wanted to get the trains that are the mainstay of the network — the ones that have those sealed windows, from the 80s or 90s and have air-conditioners. And I wanted to film on the bullet trains that evoke a high-tech China and speak to a heightened mobility and a new set of risks and uncertainties for China as a nation. And so, following that kind of visual history and that sort of infrastructural history led me to encounter people from all over.
MGS: Because everybody rides the train.
JPS: Because everybody rides the train, yeah. It’s pretty amazing too, the fact that we in the United States can barely catch a train where we live, to get anywhere. And now, in China, train rides from one end of the country to the other are six hours, when it used to be like 60 hours. It’s unbelievable. Obama’s never going to get that high-speed train through Congress, I don’t think.
MGS: No, I don’t think so. But it’s interesting: I hear so many people talk about how they want to ride trains in the U.S. but then they never do.
MGS: I think a lot of us have a romanticized idea of what it would be like to take a train across the country and stay in a sleeping car but we never do it.
JPS: It’s really expensive.
MGS: That’s true.
JPS: But your question about the cross-section, to go back to that: it came out of the editing. This might be a platitude, but there’s a great deal of unease right now amongst most of the people I encounter in China, amongst most of my friends and colleagues too. And so, I don’t know if the film communicates this but people are facing a great deal of uncertainty. On one level, what’s both fortunate and unfortunate is that, some audiences here in the States or Europe after seeing the film say things like: “You show Chinese people who are aware of their lives and ask sophisticated questions and know what’s going on in the world and have political consciousness and criticize the government, and we didn’t know that. It’s so surprising because we don’t think of Chinese people that way.” And while I am glad audience members can have this kind of realization, it is also shocking to learn of the ignorance or the misperceptions concerning Chinese people. I often respond: “Well, the Party blocks several sites on the internet and removes lots of content, and the media cannot report freely (despite the efforts of some journalists) but there’s still ways to spread information, and the Chinese are still human beings with critical minds and sophisticated notions of the world. They’re not just all marching to the step of the Party.” But what I wanted to get at was this sense of anxiety and unease — ethically, technologically, economically and spiritually. So the religion comes in, right? Muslims in Tibet?
MGS: That was fascinating.
JPS: Yeah, and I wanted it to be hanging in the air of the train that there’s this great deal of tension, as you can see, because if you read the news — you read the New York Times or anything — at least they report that there’s Uighurs, Muslims, who are attacking people at train stations, killing them with knives, there’s Tibetans who are burning themselves in protest by the hundreds, and not just in Tibet but in Sichuan, in Qinghai, in the greater Tibetan areas. And there’s economic uncertainty about how people can cover the rising cost of living. And there’s political uncertainty about what is the shape of the future of the state’s relationship to the people, as we see in Hong Kong. There’s also contradiction and uncertainty operating both within and behind what some of the people in the film are saying. Maybe it’s hard to see that if you don’t speak Chinese. If you’re reading the subtitles you can’t maybe pick up on certain facial expressions and ways of speaking.
MGS: You’re fluent in Mandarin?
JPS: Yeah. Did you get any sense of uncertainty or did it feel like, “Oh, this is a nice ride?”
MGS: Oh, the uncertainty was definitely there. And I loved the discussion of Islam among the Muslim train passengers because I feel like the more media exposure that moderate Muslims have the better. Because in this country — and I’m a teacher, I see this with my students all the time — people associate Islam with terrorism.
JPS: Right. As they do in China.
MGS: Right. So I’m always grateful to see other representations of Muslims in the media. I reviewed your film on my blog — I’ll send you a link to it — but one of the things I wrote was, “You’ll learn more about China by watching this film than you will by watching 1000 hours of CNN.”
JPS: Thank you.
MGS: And I really felt that way because you show how people think. It’s not just the headlines.
JPS: Or a sound byte. You have to listen to people for five minutes straight sometimes. (chuckles)
MGS: Yeah, but it takes you beyond the headlines: there’s a great scene where there’s some young guys lamenting the influence of the mothers-in-law?
JPS: Yeah, people love that line. (chuckles)
MGS: It was hilarious. That kind of dialogue reveals something about the fabric of society that you’re never going to read in a news article. And also learning about the importance of home ownership in Chinese marriage was fascinating.
JPS: Good. I’m glad it was a worthwhile trip for you.
MGS: I think the most amazing sequence was the one where the little kid is giving the mock-spiel of the train conductor. Where did you find him and how did you film that? Did he just do that spontaneously?
JPS: I was stuck in Guangzhou during Spring Festival, the busiest month on China’s railways as everyone is rushing to get home for the most important holiday in Chinese culture. And Guangzhou is China’s busiest station that time too. So I was standing in line at the train station for days and days, asking for a ticket anywhere out of Guangzhou, but everything was sold out. After the fourth day, somehow, miraculously, when I got to the window, there was one train ticket to Shanghai that someone must have just returned, and so I bought it immediately. In that soft-sleeper carriage I started talking with a woman whose co-workers were in the hard-seat section and she wanted me to join her to meet them all in the dining car. So as we were walking through the crowded cars of the train, I was filming behind her, tracking along and I suddenly I heard that boy making everyone laugh. So I spun the camera around and I filmed him right there at that moment. It was totally unplanned and spontaneous. And then, because I was still dedicated to continuing the shot with her, I never stopped filming to ask him his name or how old he was, or where he came up with that surreal monologue. I never asked him anything. I just caught the moment. You can see that he sees me. He’s at once both playing up to the camera, and also hiding from it a bit. He enjoys the performance but seems to feel shy at moments. When he finished, I spun back around and continued following the woman to the dining car.
MGS: That is unbelievable.
JPS: It’s just a little gift he gave to the film and then to everyone who sees the film.
MGS: You couldn’t write dialogue that good.
JPS: No, there’s no way. People ask me, “Are the subtitles correct? Did you put that in there?”
MGS: It seems like a hilarious, politically subversive parody. You couldn’t write that. And especially because it’s a train conductor’s spiel, right, the kind of thing you would normally hear over the loudspeaker?
JPS: Yeah, he’s basically riffing off of that. Well, he’s probably been on the train for hours and hours and heard the same announcement so he’s spinning the joke from that.
MGS: But he’s substituting different phrases . . .
JPS: That I imagine he’s pulling in from the sort of cynical outlooks of adults around him. He’s possibly heard his parents or others talking about issues such as the one-child policy. So he’s just pulling all that stuff into his new announcement.
MGS: But the fact that your whole film takes place on a train and for him to say that just adds another meta-layer to the whole thing. It’s really kind of a miracle of cinema that you got that.
JPS: That’s what happens if you’re open to the world, receptive to what unfolds: you will eventually get gifts like that.
You can view a clip from The Iron Ministry view YouTube below: