Angelic lighting and soft hues are the last thing you’d expect to see in a basement brimming with grime and misery. And yet, in his documentary Machines (2017), Indian director Rahul Jain manages to capture grace and color in an inherently bleak space: a textile factory in Gujarat notorious for its low pay and worker exploitation. With its smooth pans and unobtrusive shots, the film is as graceful and unassuming as its workers — in the end, a descriptive portrait that examines the pains of manual labor, and what it means to observe them from behind the comfort of a camera lens.
But, perhaps comfort isn’t the right word. To the extent that viewers are distanced from the factory’s realities, Jain does everything in his power to launch them into this foreign world. The thing that separates the viewers from an authentic experience — the camera — is the same vehicle that translates, amplifies, and then subverts this experience. With shots so well-executed that they almost seem rehearsed, Jain takes viewers through the narrow corridors of a disorienting, maze-like structure, alternating between handheld shots that make us feel as though we’re stumbling along with him and supremely well-composed stills allowing for sensory reprieve. Meanwhile, stationary frames — sometimes exceeding a minute each — seduce viewers into a hypnotic trance that mimics the exhaustion of the workers. For instance, in a single two-minute long shot, a young boy struggles to stay awake at his work post; the viewers, having no choice but to examine every detail in the shot, become similarly blurry-eyed.
But Jain does more than translate experiences; he abstractifies them. The factory, after all, seems more like a heavenly dungeon than anything with productive value — an aura that Jain creates through meticulous editing and composition. For instance, a combination of surveying shots and detail-oriented close-ups captures both the scale and intricacies of the factory’s machines, but doesn’t elucidate their purpose. In fact, contrary to its prosaic title, Machines says very little about the functional underpinnings of a factory; rather, it highlights the complicated and counterintuitive processes behind a simple end product. In many shots, workers guide fabric through machines where it seems like no help is needed; in others, workers devise intricate mechanisms to complete tasks that could very well be automated. Never do the workers explain what they’re making (there are no voiceovers in the film), and never does Jain film a task from start to finish. Process trumps outcome.
The result, then, is an eerie dream: with virtually no guiding explanations, the viewers are left guessing and wondering and experiencing. Some shots seem insulting in their beauty: in one scene, transparent white fabric falls in cream-like ripples until it fills the entire screen; in another, a corpse-like worker sleeps atop a mountain of rolled-up sheets, illuminated only by the eerie glow of a fluorescent light. The documentary is, for the most part, void of dialogue, accompanied instead by a layers of amplified clattering and clinking — and sometimes, the sounds don’t quite match the visuals. In the opening scene, for instance, the only noise accompanying a worker’s moving mouth is the crescendoing rumble of a non-present machine. It’s these subtle inconsistencies that subvert the viewers’ understanding of reality, bringing them further into a foreign factory world.
With its meticulous cinematography and mesmerizing subject matter, Machines is just as indulgent as it is immersive — an experience that propels the film’s ultimate question: “What are you directing here?” When a crowd of factory workers asks this of the cameraman, the viewers, too, find themselves questioning their own gaze. In examining the factory workers’ plight, are we indulging in their misery, or gaining valuable awareness? Is it enough to “come here, look at our problems, and leave,” or does responsible viewership entail some sort of activism?
A clear answer is one thing Machines is unable to offer.