The Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard is something of a documentary hit factory. Sweetgrass (2010) and Leviathan (2012) were both tremendous critical hits, dominating year-end top 10 lists and inspiring much of the growing excitement around creative nonfiction cinema. The same happened last year with Manakamana, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s minimalist journey up and down a cable car in Nepal. All of their films are formally experimental and dramatically intimate, whether it be spending time with an old woman eating ice cream or waist deep in a pile of fish.
As is true of every hit factory, there are some Sensory Ethnography Lab films that sit a bit further outside the chorus of critical acclaim. Foreign Parts, directed by Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, slipped under the radar back in 2011. Sniadecki’s most recent feature, The Iron Ministry, was made outside of the purview of the Lab and does not currently have U.S. theatrical distribution. Both are excellent, complex portraits of communities in a state of flux.
It’s always been a little ironic that the most popular Sensory Ethnography Lab films are those with the least explicit engagement with people. Sweetgrass and Leviathan are nature films just as much as they are ethnography, if not more so. Foreign Parts and The Iron Ministry, on the other hand, are very specific portraits of two places and those who inhabit them. The former is a study of Willets Point, an odd industrial neighborhood in Queens, New York, where automobiles are scrapped, stripped and salvaged. Sniadecki’s latest solo project, meanwhile, is the result of three years spent riding the railroads of China. His fascination with mechanical images echoes both Foreign Parts and Leviathan, while his pursuit of a relaxed Chinese body politic in the passageways of its rail cars seems like new ground for the Lab’s associated filmmakers.
Both Foreign Parts and The Iron Ministry combine the kinetic representation of place and the less tangible distillation of very local culture. Willets Point frequently floods, allowing Paravel and Sniadecki to capture truly strange and unique images of New York City’s fringe. The messy state of the neighborhood has driven the city government to try and demolish it entirely. The only remaining official resident of the neighborhood becomes the hero of a grand and absurd tragedy, forming a community with those homeless New Yorkers who take refuge in the area’s industrial haunts. Local personalities are an equal part of this sensory ethnography with the landscape itself.
The same is true of The Iron Ministry, though here Sniadecki is less interested in individuals and more fascinated by conversations among groups of travelers. The trains of China are hurtling metaphors of industrialization, commercial development and political change, stretching from the nation’s metropolises out into the vast rural lands of Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Their mechanical grunts and shrieks, their metallic underbellies and their speed evoke the arrival of forward-moving history itself. Yet they are also physical and social spaces occupied by the growing Chinese middle class. Sniadecki observes open political and religious discussions that might surprise a Western audience with their frankness, as well as moments that reveal continued official control over some areas of life. Expelled from the dining car but able to observe many an intimate moment in passenger and sleeping cars, the director has managed to craft quite an intriguing sensory ethnography even without the official Harvard seal.
Courtesy of Doc Alliance and their latest programmed event, you can watch Foreign Parts and The Iron Ministry below for free through March 29th. Also streaming for free here are Manakamana and People’s Park.
The Yellow Bank:
Kale and Kale:
As Long As There´s Breath:
Terrace of the Sea:
Find more great documentaries from all over the world streaming on Doc Alliance everyday. And now they offer a subscription streaming service, which is only 3.99€ a month or 35€ a year.
This post was originally published on March 17, 2015.