By Arun Fulara. Posted on October 13, 2017
I met Rahul Jain, couple of years back at the NFDC Film Bazaar, where he was looking for post-production funding for his yet-to-completed documentary, Machines. The trailer that he’d cut for the Bazaar gripped my imagination and I immediately sensed the power of the images he’d captured. I’ve been following the film’s journey ever since and was particularly thrilled when it received recognition at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film has since travelled to festivals around the world, garnering praise and acclaim at most of them along with awards at a few.
The film is set to make its India premiere in the India Gold (Competition section) at the Mumbai Film Festival this week and I hope a lot of you go out to watch it.
While we are all aware of the criminal inequities and injustices that prevail in our society, most of us are privileged enough to not face these on a daily basis. Passing by hideously dirty slums in our large cities every day we have the luxury of turning our eyes away from the people who inhabit them and towards the shining glass screens of our latest smartphones. We’ve long become inured to the misery and pain that poverty inflicts on people. There’s a comfortable veil that we hide behind to ignore the despondent reality that the large mass of our society lives in.
Machines strips this veil off our eyes and puts us directly in front of those workers who labour day and night in appalling conditions to satisfy our hunger for ‘sales’ and ‘discounts’. The documentary is a fly-on-the-wall view of the innards of a textile factory in Gujarat where migrant labourers from the north and east of India slog tirelessly. There’s no narration, no voice-over, no outsider explaining the workers plight. It is an unmediated view of the worker at work.
The sympathies of the director are clear. The long shots of men at work on their machines repeating tasks over and over again induce ennui as they are supposed to. The viewer is forced to stay there with the worker and watch him. I found himself shifting in my seat as I waited for the director to cut away to some other shot but he doesn’t. The worker doesn’t have a choice, so why should the viewer have one, the director seems to be saying.
The film has a strange rhythm to it, brilliantly aided by the sound design that brings the humming factory to life. You feel as if you are in the cauldron too. The film draws us in and when we’ve adjusted to the pace of the film, the workers start talking to us. The film is a mouthpiece for them as they present their stories. Once you’ve seen the dreariness of their existence it’s hard not to sympathize with them.
Rahul Jain - The director of Machines
As a kid, Rahul Jain spent time in his grandfather’s factory, much like the one he’s shot in. He dropped out of engineering to study film making at the California Institute of the Arts. This is his first documentary. We spoke with him recently on his film and future plans. Below are a few excerpts from the interview.
I was introduced to them through relatives of relatives. I told them in honesty that the film was about how the unregulated sector factories throughout India provide jobs to millions of our countrymen and women from parts of the country that have zero unemployable conditions.
My presence and that of a huge camera was as alien in the factory as an extraterrestrial would have been. It was a natural curiosity of the workers that led them to look at the camera all the time. But after a lot of duration spent there, at some point of time, people started to not care much about the camera’s presence. The first few days in the location were spent without a camera, immersed in debilitating heat and pungently paralyzing smells of chemicals, dust and fumes all mixed in the atmosphere of the factory. After a lot of trial and error, I realized with my DoP Rodrigo Trejo, that if we couldn’t act in a calm and collected way and focus our thoughts on singular ideas, then we would be wasting our time. After this realization we started working in a telepathic synergy exuding an objective calmness.
The only objective I was chasing from the beginning was a feeling of the unknown. I don’t know where this desire came from. But I think it is a certain sense of hopelessness I carry from the deep within me, which is why anyone would make a film like this in the first place. In the beginning I was moving very chaotically, trying to capture everything that was happening in the factory at the same time. The rhythm you mention is a feeling of time, or temporality, which I wanted to use as weight or gravity pressing down on the audience’s shoulders, or eyes. As we normally don’t get to see such dimensions of reality exposed in populist or mainstream media, I wanted to use the opportunity to really make one “see”.
I did shoot a lot indeed, and had many different cuts or versions of the film. Instead of building the film like an additive construction, I made a subtractive sculpting like attempt to cut down from the footage like a sculptor would cut through stone, letting the indices of the block of stone dictate what the sculpture would be. Throughout the shooting process, I was being guided by my curiosities, and over time later on, it was the result of the curiosities guiding me what the film should be from that which we had acquired in our shootings. One can fall in the trap of thinking that they can assert control over what they are shooting in non-fiction, but I have learnt and realized over time that it is a grave error to think that camera’s, technologies, education and planning can give you what you want as soon as you decide it. All plans are meant to be broken. It is nonetheless a good thing to have plans, so one is not dancing like a headless chicken.
In the beginning, everyone around my immediate circle of influence was telling me what a boring subject I have chosen with no value at all whatsoever, as not only Indians, but the whole world knows the levels depraving poverty India stands for. That is where the role of art came; which is to look with a unique perspective at the everyday things in life that most people have become so desensitized to that they think it is normalized. My perspective was certainly challenged and shaped by my time in the factory’s world, something I don’t experience or face in my everyday. And even when I do, it’s from a place of being able to press escape when I want to.
The film was borne out of my film school education, where one of the primary axiom of my most preferred teachers was ‘all art is political‘ something that took me a while to grapple with as my conception of art was romantic, which could be that of the audience perhaps, but not of the artist. I think to make art with implicit or explicitly charged politics is the definitive way to ensure that the work remains meaningful throughout time, for it to have some kind of a life. I chose the subject because it was subconsciously somewhere embedded in my mind due to childhood experience of having seen a factory like this and having had the time and space to ponder how can someone work in a place like that.
People throughout the world have been no less than shocked, even though they all claim they knew it was bad, but nobody knew how bad it really was. The film has shown in cinemas, cities and festivals that cover the whole socio-economic spectrum. Most people have said that they would stop buying Indian clothes, not realizing that it’s not the production conditions but the exploitative nature of the situation that is so decrepit. The audiences usually want to know what have I done for the workers, foregoing the fact that I am making the film, and the sociological job and role of the artist is to relay information with a perspective that provokes subconscious thought.
The workers have not seen the film yet but soon will after the Indian premiere at MAMI. I have not gone back to the factory but we soon will launch initiatives in most factory towns across the country.
As we all know the nature of how documentaries are perceived in the spreading of our mainstream culture, particularly in a theatrical environment, it will be a difficult sell, but something is in the pipes, the film will have a limited release around the country in the early winter/spring months of the coming year ahead.
I am working on a non-fictional film on the nature of the different kinds of pollution in the world’s biggest democracy’s capital, which also happens to be my hometown; New Delhi. I am very interested in making a fiction film, but the time seems exigently ripe to generate a consciousness of debate and thought about that which everyone is suffering but not many people talking about.
Don't miss the documentary at MAMI this year. To know the screening timings, check here.