A documentary on the brutality behind India's textile factories.
It takes a full thirteen minutes before anyone in Machines—first-time director Rahul Jain's mesmerizing new documentary—speaks up. In the interim, we've followed a fluid, patient camera as it takes in (and reveals) multiple aspects of production in what is clearly a textile printing factory. We watch furnaces stoked, steaming baths tended, colors mixed by hand, buckets of dye dragged, and machines—some surely unaltered since their manufacture in the nineteenth century—at work and rest. And everywhere, in long tracking shots, we follow laborers: lifting, carrying, and walking through a labyrinth of dimly lit, grime-coated, waterlogged spaces—the full scope or scale of which is impossible to detect.
That these are considerably less-than-ideal working conditions, by any standards, is demonstrably apparent by now. Still, in subsequent minutes, as the visual evidence gradually piles up and we hear from more from the factory workers, the full weight of its wretchedness unfurls.
We might guess, but it's yet to be revealed exactly where we might be. Indeed, almost forty-five minutes will pass before an incidental remark allows us to locate the action in the state of Gujarat, in Western India. Locus of the nation's so-called economic "miracle," citadel of "Shining" India, Gujarat is home to hundreds of such mills and factories, many of them presumably operating under the same bleak conditions. The workers populating these factories tend to be migrants from other parts of the country, driven by abject poverty to accept terms and circumstances that beggar the imagination.
Many of them, when they address the camera, speak to these circumstances with heartbreaking candor: the long journeys and debts incurred to get to their jobs; the difficulties of long periods of separation from one's home and family; the brutal twelve-hour shifts followed, in at least one character's case, by a mere hour or two of rest before beginning a second one; and the unflagging weight of cyclical poverty that forces most to feel too powerless to act collectively, in their own interests. As we watch hundreds of meters of fabric being singed, scoured, bleached, dyed, and prepared for printing, dozens of flatbed and rotary screens dutifully marking designated patterns and the numbing repetitive acts of industrial scale production performed ceaselessly, the emotional weight of what it takes to bring our $6.99 H&M tank tops and $24.99 Pier 1 bedspreads to market begins to resonate with excruciating clarity.
The cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva's camera records all of this quietly and with admirable restraint: tracking activity here, pausing to highlight a machine or a tableaux of workers in action or at rest there. The film is visually striking: the chiaroscuro lighting and intricately calibrated sound design, the sequence of stills of exhausted employees asleep atop bales of fabric as classically composed as any Caravaggio, serve to simultaneously ravish the senses and bring the sweltering heat and toxic atmosphere of the surroundings to palpable life.
But it is the methodical cataloging of facts and the camera's slow, unhurried pace that is the film's most arresting feature, one that anchors its moral compass firmly on the side of those laboring amidst the grim confines. Shot after shot of exhausted workers—some barely teenagers—falling asleep on the job, are as effectively wrenching as anything documented by Sebastião Salgado. This accumulative strategy becomes the film's true weapon, building an arsenal of evidence against possible justifications that any aspect of global capitalism's machinations might be designed to pull those toiling at the bottom rungs up toward anywhere near its middle.
And the justifications do inevitably show up, in due course: first, from a brutally imperious labor contractor ("Union? I am the Union," he announces before laying out in blunt detail why no organizing impulse could possibly be tolerated under his regime) and then more pointedly, from the mill's owner himself, whose casual and caustic dismissal of his employees' needs is almost cartoonish in its guileless lack of empathy.
This moment, clearly inserted to serve as a damning indictment, may be the rare weak link in the film. It jars, not because his tone or anything he says come as any surprise—far from it—but because its tenor is at odds with the controlled discipline with which Jain has built his case until then. By now, the compelling formal structure of the film, blissfully free of voiceover or unnecessary narrative arcs, has already successfully established that nobody at the top cares.
A knottier and more implicating exchange occurs toward the last segment: out on the streets, as the camera pans across a large circle of men glowering at the camera, one of them pointedly asks the off-camera crew about their own motivations: "Why have you come here? We are presenting our problems to you… Why don't you do something about it? [You will] leave after listening to us, just as the ministers do."
These barbs might as well be directed at us. It's a testament to this film's complex, beating heart that Jain chooses to not only leave this moment for us to parse, but that we are almost compelled to look away from the screen.
Machines plays through August 15, 2017 at Film Forum in New York.
Kanishka Raja is a painter working across media at the intersection of representation, ornament, architecture, and textile arts. His work has been featured in exhibitions at the Asia Society Museum, ICA Boston, the Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz, ICA Philadelphia, and the Rose Art Museum, among others. He lives in New York and Kolkata.