Rahul Jain’s Machines is most remarkable for the way it balances formal invention with activist intent. The documentary brings us behind the scenes of a textile factory in Gujarat, India where Jain, in recording footage of employees hard at work, tries to instill in us a visceral sense of the mechanization that he observes in the employees’ assembly-line motions. Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva’s camera snakes through the factory in long takes that bring to mind the winding Steadicam tour of the Overlook in The Shining. Occasionally, the camera will settle on fixed shots, usually of repetitive movements—machines mechanically gyrating while their human handlers stoically plug away at their tasks. Combine such images with Susmit “Bob” Nath’s remarkably detailed and immersive sound design and Jain’s film conveys with revelatory force the mechanization of people in an industrialized milieu.
Lest that sound as if Jain is unduly aestheticizing this oppressive environment, the filmmaker also peppers Machines with interviews with workers and managers to bring home the human dimension of the problems that the film captures. But these interviews do more than just contextualize Jain’s aesthetics, as they also map out an entire ecosystem of exploitation, one in which some of the factory employees quite possibly don’t even realize that they’re being exploited. “God gave us hands, so we have to work,” says one worker, as if trying to reason his way into accepting his lowly position. Another much younger employee justifies his arduous workload by stating his belief that all this hard work will prepare him to be able to do anything in the future. Jain offers no voiceover commentary on camera, thus leaving us to form our own conclusions, but the implication of humanity warped by a soullessly institutional mindset is unmistakably pungent throughout.
Naturally, other workers who Jain interviews—none of whom are identified on screen—are more conscious of their exploitation. Some find small ways to stave off boredom, with one man copping to an addiction to chewing tobacco because that’s the only bit of recreation he can afford on his meager salary. Others, meanwhile, are more direct about their frustrations, railing against the indifference exuded by their bosses toward their frequently dire personal circumstances. Even among these more outspoken employees, though, Jain offers us different perspectives, and as such Machines is dialectical in its approach. One interview subject confidently articulates his belief in the power of unionization to fight against poor working conditions, and minutes later another man talks enthusiastically about the freedom that comes with being a contractor as opposed to being a union member.
Jain does interview one person in a position of power in this Gujarat factory, and the perspective that this man articulates is sobering, if not downright enraging, in its lack of empathy for the workers underneath him. The man even takes a dig at workers like the aforementioned one who spends his money on chewing tobacco; to this manager, such actions simply reinforce what he sees as their shortsighted wastefulness. “They understand only one thing: money,” he explicitly tells Jain. As horrifying as it is to witness such insensitivity, Machines is so clear-eyed up to this point about the complex economic and social forces that feed into this cycle of exploitation that this one man’s insular viewpoint is all too understandable.
Jain’s curiosity about this situation doesn’t end at just workers and managers. Toward the end of the film, he includes a scene in which a group of farmers castigate Jain himself for what they see as his privilege in being able to simply ask questions about their plight while never actually doing anything about the problem. It’s the filmmaker’s willingness to implicate himself, and by extension viewers watching Machines, in the troubles he chronicles that suggests the keening intelligence underlying the film beyond its more immediate aesthetic impact. There may be a certain beauty in the images he presents to us, but he never lets us forget the terrible humanity behind them.