Sundance 2017: Welcome to the “Machines”

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Directed and Written by: Rahul Jain
Produced by: Rahul Jain, Thanassis Karathanos, Iikka Vehkalahti
Cinematography by: Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva
Editing by: Yaël Bitton, Rahul Jain
Sound Design by: Susmit “Bob” Nath
Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

*****

If the actors in Robert Bresson’s films were models whose inner lives were meant to be shaped by the vision of the filmmaker, then the Gujarati factory workers in the quite marvelous Machines are like Rahul Jain’s indentured mannequins. In the hands of this hyper-talented writer-director, whose work as the producer, camera operator, sound recordist, and co-editor of his feature documentary debut suggests an architectonic mind, we feel as if we are touching damaged figures with bodies and inner essences warped by labor – yet who nonetheless maintain überhuman composure, posture, and strength. This film is visually exquisite, an under-the-radar treat for those of it at its screenings at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. What pushes Jain’s and his filmmaking team’s accomplishment to a higher echelon, though, is the attention paid to the inner power of the characters. Perhaps not since Harlan Country, USA has a such a slavish industry been as eloquently critiqued.

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The Bresson analogy is no coincidence, given the razor-sharp precision in rhythm and pace that editors Yaël Bitton and Jain find within an Escherian textile factory in Sachin, India. Nearly a half-hour of footage – hypnotic streams of floral fabrics being dyed; a pre-adolescent employee blacking out next to heavy machinery – plays without a word of dialogue. When the workers do eventually speak (directly to the camera, in most cases), they give voice to their disillusionment in poetic diatribes on their horrific workplace and its $3-per-shift wages. Like Bresson’s characters, their words are direct, focused, and exactingly angry, with not a word wasted; even the unrepentant factory owner, a Trumpian capitalist with a malicious streak, pauses for twenty demonstrative seconds between sentences.

But this is hardly a quiet or ruminative fly-on-the-wall documentary: in fact, Susmit “Bob” Nath’s incredible sound design only suggests the deafening clatter in this mechanized fortress. Imagine turning twenty televisions in a concrete room that only play static at their highest volume levels, and you can imagine the hellish soundscape within the factory. Clashing, creaking, clammering, slashing, smashing, spraying, sparking, popping. None of the workers wear earplugs or head protection; nor do most wear gloves or protective gear for their arms, legs, or eyes. I was reminded of Daniel Eisenberg’s experimental documentary The Unstable Object, shot from within the Turkish caves where Zildjian manufactures its cymbals. In Eisenberg’s film, molten metal is poured from molds into canisters, threatening to burn the hands right off one of the workers. Likewise, in Gujarat, the possibility of daily injury creates a cloud of noise as violent as a hurricane.

The title of the film is as much a question as an identification: what constitutes a machine, and what circumstances turn someone biological into something artificial, are up for debate in Jain’s world. If the labor is an extension of their actual, physical needs, at what point does a person’s quest for food, shelter, and clothing become completely mechanized – and the social element of a man’s existence get erased? For the Sachin textile workers, desperation is both a fuel and a currency, exchanged and transferred more easily than actual money. On the other hand, the Trumpian manager insists that itinerant workers – who come from all over Western India looking to get paid and get out – secretly want cigarettes, booze, and gambling money more than sustenance. Jain and Bitton allow for the possibility that the labor of thousands, which produces fabric to be cut, worn, and shopped all over the world, is based in these material addictions. Yet they also imply through subject interviews that the ever-flowing tide of new employees to the factory is polluted by the owners’ greed.

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But machines don’t gamble, do they? Or smoke? No, though these men are human beings in the process of wearing themselves to the bone, they are not yet machines. Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, the film’s cinematographer, captures them in the center of a shared breakdown process – regimented by their physical and social positions at the factory, but still people. Villanueva distributes the camera throughout the factory, dragging it on the basin of a soapy bucket or stacking it high above an endless pile of white sheets. In a recurring motif, we see from behind light cloth onto a workworn face; these images are among the most beautiful in a uniformly luminous work, and the clearest signs of Villanueva’s photographic gifts. Equally stirring are his frontal medium-long shots of the workers themselves, who Jain cultivates with an ironic sense of their appeals: his interview subjects are all smart, good-looking, healthy, and angry. Thanks to the hard fluorescent lighting in their conversations and Villanueva’s softly mobile camera, we absorb some of their pain.

One final thought lingers in considering this exemplary first feature. Jain’s title does not only apply to the West Indian workforce, but to the reactions he anticipates from those who see Machines. In the United States, we widely respond to social injustices – like the underpaying and insufficient protection of laborers, which Barbara Kopple tackled in Harlan County, USA – with sighs of resignation and powerlessness. In the age of social media, American politicians tweet “thoughts and prayers” as a rhetorical response to mass shootings; and outrage at the president-elect’s Twitter feed has overcome concern about his actual behavior.

Similarly, there are those who saw Jain’s film at Sundance whose responses will be to call the film, “powerful,” “tragic,” and “painful,” but not to act on behalf of the nearly indentured workers profiled. While the filmmakers don’t seem to be after charitable handouts for their subjects, rhetorical phrases that suggest deep empathy for them will unavoidably emerge in the reviews. This is an accepted inevitability in the world of nonfiction film criticism, and Jain – a CalArts graduate with undeniable craftsmanship and talent – is undoubtedly prepared for such responses. In the face of such a powerful film, viewers will line up to offer their sympathies, their pride at having seen such a film, and their praise for the bravery of the filmmakers. Is there anything more mechanized these days than the outrage-to-sympathy cycle?

One response to “Sundance 2017: Welcome to the “Machines”

  1. Pingback: Sundance 2017: Getting “TRUMPED” Makes for Electrifying Cinema | CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism·

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