Director Rahul Jain may not claim any particular visual influences for his bleak and beautiful documentary Machines, but a viewer, watching the endless turning of rollers and streams of colorful fabrics tended by silent, unsmiling men, might nevertheless be reminded of the factory sequence in Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with Movie Camera. Where Vertov’s head-whipping intercuts of speeding pistons and wheels with massive, sweaty biceps, smiling faces, and lantern jaws intend to glorify work and the worker, to marry man and woman and machine, depicting them as the steaming, coal-stoked heart of a Soviet Russia on the rise, Jain’s Machines illustrates the persistence, in India and elsewhere, of a much earlier industrial environment—the one critiqued by Marx and Engels. The visual rhetoric of Machines is all about the alienation of these workers from their labor and its products, which they had no part in designing.
Confining itself to the interior of just one of 800 textile mills in one city in the state of Gujarat, Machines opens with a lyrical glide through the dim and raucous space in which workers spend twelve hour shifts, tending looms and spreading and mixing dye, with only a one-hour break before starting again. They wash here. They sleep here, amidst ammoniac fumes and roaring shuttles. The men and boys—some as young as eleven—all from other, poorer states in India, where they say they can’t find work that pays so well, sometimes take loans with as much as 10 percent interest to travel here, laboring for a few months before returning home to their families, then coming back again and again. While some realize unionizing would allow them to reduce their hours and demand higher wages, they also fear the deadly retaliation they know comes with such attempts at organization. Despite this, at least some claim they aren’t being exploited. The poverty in which they would otherwise live “is harassment,” one says. “There is no cure.” But this.
Machines is an unusually revealing portrait of what these workers believe is the best they can get, and how at least one boss views his charges. Jain told his audience he earned this honesty through long hours of abiding with his subjects and being equally open with them about his intentions. But the conditions of life and work for boss and laborer here all also no secret. There’s nothing hidden, nothing to hide. All one needs to do is look, which is itself more complex than it seems. How should we respond to the stunningly beautiful image of an exhausted man, his corpse-like, sleeping body sunk into a massive bolt of pink fabric?
Jain, to his credit, acknowledges the inherent dangers of the camera’s aestheticizing attention in a sequence in which a crowd of workers surrounding him and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, questions and critiques their project, reminding the viewer, too, that we are just passing through. We offer no alternative to this situation, which we also sustain. While Jain’s long takes impress upon us the tedium of the work and the attention required to produce the strikingly patterned fabrics flowing through the factory, we have the luxury of allowing our eyes to drift and appreciate the deep and luminous hues, the hypnotic rhythms, the metaphoric similarities between two men spreading dye and a machine, steps away, built to accomplish the same action. We hover in a strange, now estranged, space, the space of the consumer, carrying with us, as we leave, the question of how to respond.