Sometimes a camera catches sight of a stunning beauty where you don’t expect to find any. Rahul Jain’s debut feature Machines, a profound portrayal of a textile factory in the Indian state of Gujarat, offers one of the most cinematic and immersive documentaries in recent memory. At 75 minutes, it never overstays its welcome and it deserves to be seen on the big screen.
The conditions are extreme and harsh, which the labourers candidly reveal to the camera. Some of them travel thousands of miles for the opportunity to work punishing 12-hour shifts for a starvation wage amounting to the equivalent of three dollars. Workers’ rights and unions don’t exist, as the leaders of new movements have a mysterious habit of dying in accidents. There is however condescension from the filmmakers and no self-pity in their narratives, faithful to first line spoken in the film: “God gave us hands, so we have to work.”
Words fade into the background of Machines, which is first and foremost a film of images and sounds. The Mexican cinematographer, who has experience as a factory worker, captures the mechanical nature of the production line in lengthy sequences of surprising beauty. Somewhere between Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s haunting portrait of the industrial fishing industry Leviathan (2012) and the pensiveness in the recent work of the great Malaysian filmmaker Ming-liang Tsai, Rahul Jain zooms in on the giant printing/drying appliances, the barrels of freshly mixed dye and big piles of packaged cloth. Everything is in motion and everything makes a noise. The camera rarely escapes the dimly lit interiors of the production floor.
Unlike to the colourful cloth that runs through the machines, the factory looks threadbare and derelict, yet hauntingly beautiful. The same can be said of the workers faces and bodies. Many of them are very young, but the film identifies something fascinating in their features. In one sequence, Jain shows a number of workers, unable to afford accommodation, sleeping on stockpiles or working surfaces. Motionless, they have become one with the lifeless factory.
These moments make the film visually beautiful, but the aesthetics are always political. The allure of the cinematic visuals stands in direct contrast to the human reality, creating a thought-provoking friction. Towards the end, there is an intriguing confrontation when a crowd of workers corner the filmmaker (or the cameraman, we don’t know) and question his motives. “Why have you come? Are you just going to take a look at our problems and leave? Are you going to do something about it?” The response is not in the film, as if it is saying to the audience that they too must consider these questions. There is no immediate or correct answer, but they are interesting to ponder on the way home.