Sunday, August 9, 2015

J.P. Sniadecki's new documentary "The Iron Ministry" at Grand Illusion Cinema: Aug 28 - Sept 3

The documentary continues to take major evolutionary strides, some of the most striking of it's new forms in the 21st Century have been the visual essayist films issuing from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and their Film, Visual and Environmental Studies Departments. The vanguard of this observational cinema can be seen in the work of the department's Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel and Libbie D. Cohn and their "Leviathan" and "People's Park" of 2012 and 2013 respectively. Whether it be the effect of time-distention in Montana's rolling grasslands as imbued by "Sweetgrass", "Foreign Parts" self-made enterprise of the Willets Point industrial zone, the gondola-aided pilgrimage to the venerated "Manakamana" temple in Nepal, the cosmic space-like depths of night off the New England coast, or a summer afternoon in Chengdu China, Cohn, Sniadecki, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor presented these locales as though seen through the eyes of an off-worlder. The Earth as a place of wonder, danger and mystery. This is a cinema that is tangible, time-specific and very much about our place within it all. Both Dennis Lim's New York Times piece, "The Merger of Academia and Art House: Harvard Filmmakers’ Messy World" and Irina Leimbacher's "The World Made Flesh: Toward a Post-Humanist Cinema" for Film Comment go some way to convey the richly political, anthropological, physical, auditory, visual, experience of their singular body of work.

Later this month The Grand Illusion will be screening their foray into the landscape of China via the rails of "The Iron Ministry". Filmed over three years on what will soon be the world's largest railway network Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab associate, J.P. Sniadecki traces the interior of a country on the move as they pass through extended rural stretches punctuated by massive industrial and agricultural endeavor and some of the world's densest urban enclaves. Adding to his long project documenting Chinese public places that have rarely been screened outside film studies and museum retrospectives like MoMA's Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions and Harvard Film Archive's Ghost Towns and Steel Rails: J.P. Sniadecki in China, Sniadecki edited tens of hours of footage into a concentrated 82 minute kaleidoscopic sensory experience that's by turns observational, engaged, assaultive and humane. He spends as much time talking to the passengers about social issues as he does creating a removed audio-visual blurring of three years of time spent on the state run rail system into an impressionistic environment of sights and sounds. This vacillating between engagement with it's subject and the ambient drift is detailed in "Chinese Society Takes on Metaphorical Dimensions in 'The Iron Ministry'", IndieWire notes Sniadecki's approach is significantly more critical of its setting than many of the Sensory Ethnographic Lab projects with which it has a kinship, yet the result again is that he turns the chaos of modern China into dense, frantic poetry. One which A.O. Scott's New York Times review praised as, "Neither boring nor confining, which is just to say that it’s not a long trip through a faraway country. It’s a work of art: vivid and mysterious and full of life." and Cinema-Scope's Jordan Cronk called, "An undeniably virtuoso accomplishment. More importantly, as an empathetic portrait of perseverance, it’s a humane, often illuminating transcontinental chronicle."