August: Machines

“The Solidarity of Impotence”

Pooja Rangan (Amherst College)

Yard upon yard of gauzy white cloth passes dripping wet over a hot steel iron, filling the air with steam and the occasional electric crackle. The scene is hypnotic, even beautiful, and the repetitive sounds of machines lull the senses. Cut to a young boy, about 9 years old, his eyes fluttering shut as he guides reams of wet cloth from an industrial washing machine toward the iron. His mouth is slack. Suddenly he jolts forward in a motion familiar to cinema-goers, but here the consequences are potentially deadly. He glances in confusion at the camera, then, realizing it is not a supervisor, yawns, and returns to his task. Before long, he slumps over again. The next cut breaks our reverie with the assaulting sound of metal hitting metal; a man swings a giant hammer at a broken machine.

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CalArts graduate Rahul Jain interrupts mesmerizing observation with sonic and verbal confrontation in his debut feature Machines (2017). His choices feel as symptomatic as they are calculated, which makes his film an interesting lens through which to regard the influential sensory turn in observational filmmaking. Jain’s film is set in the subterranean masculine world of a textile factory in Gujarat, India. Here, workers perform rote tasks ranging from the superhuman to the subhuman, often in consecutive 12-hour shifts. Men move 220kg vats of dye using nothing but their body weight. Young boys scoop out chemicals using their bare hands, while outside the factory even younger children root through barrels of toxic waste, carelessly dumped in a nearby stream, looking for copper. Fumes suffuse the air (ammonia, the director has revealed in an interview). Immense bales of cloth are washed, pressed, silk-screened, packaged, marked, moved from one spot to another; they then become makeshift beds and tables for meals.

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The film’s stylized and restrained Steadicam photography shot in moody available light (for which cinematographer Rodrigo Treio Villanueva has won a Sundance Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography) led me to expect that the voice of the film would emerge from the contemplative duration of the shots. Several long takes of machines and men reminded me of films associated with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, especially Toby Lee and Pawel Wojtasik’s Single Stream (2013), another film that dwells on a microcosm of the Capitalocene – the recycling facility – and Wojtasik’s The End and the Means (2018), which exults in the spectacle of laboring bodies in Varanasi, India. Machines is similarly fascinated with the sublimity of sinew and steel, but in the more rewarding shots other details rise into affective consciousness, bringing horror and pathos: chemical fumes rising behind men wearing no gloves or masks, the filthy fingernails of a man grinding chewing tobacco in his callused palm.

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But Machines does not seem convinced of the political possibilities of the long take; its editing feels more polemical and restless. The observational sequences are interspersed with confrontational monologues in which workers attest to their exploitation with poetic outrage. “Poverty is harassment,” one man offers, describing economic coercions less forceful but more effective than slavery. A child laborer explains where adults come from: “When you learn to work as a child you become sharper.” At its most blatant, Jain’s editing borders propaganda. The two solitary scenes featuring “the bosses” (sipping tea, complaining about ungrateful workers), intercut with scenes of mechanized, weaponized poverty, have all the subtlety of the (genius) sequence in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) in which wealthy white people spout vacuities about Flint’s economic recovery at a costume party where black people have been hired to play human statues.

Reviews of Machines are divided among celebrations of Jain’s “explicitly political filmmaking” as a “direct call for unionization” (Hans, The Guardian) and indictments of his “stylistic puritanism” for “not supplying the basic information about its subject” (Cheshire, RogerEbert.com). In a way, both positions reinforce the binary of aesthetics and politics that the film seems to want to undo, with mixed results. Jain has been vocal about his grandfather owning a textile factory, in which he spent time as a child. Knowing this, one can read the testimonial sequences as Jain’s attempt to temper his privilege and access while employing an idiom that foregrounds his distance from the world his film observes. But I wonder if Machines broaches a more confounding question: the prospects of political filmmaking in the face of planetary collapse, captured here as a daily catastrophe. Toward the end Jain includes a lengthy sequence in which his crew are surrounded by a mob whose desperate anger is curbed only by self-interest. “Do something about our problems, LEAD US,” one worker entreats. He continues bitterly, “You’ll leave after listening, just like a politician.” Jain says nothing. He is mute, unresponsive. I find myself pondering the solidarity of revealing this impotence. There is something compelling about this choice which exceeds the obligatory, humanist gestures of cinematic reflexivity—gestures that we may even call mechanical. In this moment, Jain captures something of an existence that is being evacuated of humanity, but which may be turning, in the process, into something we cannot yet predict.

“The Politics of Engaging the Senses”

Allison Ross (University of Southern California)

With its images of interwoven fabrics and its methodical, inquisitive camera movements, Machines is a hypnotic viewing experience. Bright dyes splashed onto textiles capture the viewer’s attention, inspiring critics like Ben Kenigsburg of the New York Times to refer to this film as “striking.” However, he also mentions the “squalor” these images depict –the harsh labor conditions and impossible working hours. As much as Machines aestheticizes the textiles made by factory laborers and the bodies of those working, the film is invested equally in portraying the toll this labor takes on those bodies. What are the phenomenological and political implications of a film that is so haptically engaging and experientially rich, while also critical of and politically opposed to the conditions necessary to produce such rich fabrics?

Machines is about a textile factory in Gujarat, India, where children and adults complete 48-72 hour shifts making dyes, textiles, and other fabric goods. Along with segments of the workers going about their daily lives, director Rahul Jain interviews these laborers about their experiences, families, motives for coming to work, and the level of poverty they experience. In aestheticizing the depiction of human suffering, Jain’s film echoes many of the critiques levied by Anna McCarthy against the “theater of suffering,” a term she employs to describe reality television, arguing that suffering itself is displayed as a melodramatic spectacle to be absorbed and beheld for spectators’ entertainment. In Machines, the spectacle is more sensory than narrative, but entails some of the same elements of passive viewer response.

The film highlights images rather than information. Not unlike other cerebral, meditative, and decontextualized openings of factory documentaries – perhaps the most notable of these being the over ten-minute long take of assembly line production in Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2007) – Machines’ first shots are of workers actively producing textiles. But the audience never is told what is being manufactured. Furthermore, the workers themselves are shown in ways that fragment their bodies, decontextualizing their forms and enforcing the sense that they are part of the film’s aesthetic landscape, rather than individuals with their own narratives and subjectivities.

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When this atmospheric introduction ends and the first proper sequence begins, talking-head interviews with two of the workers vaguely and indirectly address the impossible factory conditions, long hours, and low wages these workers must endure. Yet they choose words that indicate a dreamlike valence. For example, one interview subject describes workers having to “bend and twist” their bodies and leaving “one’s” wife and kids without specifying if these are actions he has taken, or general examples of sacrifices one might make to work in a factory like this one. The impression of these more “informative” scenes heightens the film’s poetic and drifting tone. Though it is unclear if this circumspect language emerges out of necessity and/or censorship, no more specific factual information is gained in these moments. Rather, these dialogues are consistent with the aesthetics of the film: they are elliptical and place the filmmaker’s framing, staging, and stylization of information in the foreground in a way that sometimes overshadows the interview subjects. On one hand, the approach to these interviews fundamentally challenges an omniscient singular narrative prevalent in so many “social problem” films by introducing a polyphony of workers’ voices without using voiceover or intertitles to explain the context and content of each one of these workers’ claims. However, on the other hand, by denying the viewer discursive knowledge to instead draw exclusively upon workers’ experiences, the labor critique of the film may be lost or diluted in service of greater ambiguity and indeterminacy.

The choice of creating a haptic experience and juxtaposing it with factual interviews builds atmosphere instead of demanding action. Jain’s technique can be connected to a longer history of noninterventionist observational documentary. Consistent with the fly-on-the-wall documentaries of direct cinema, and with depictions of factory work like Manufactured Landscapes, the film relies heavily on the audience to supply not only information and context but also a “next step.” The upside is the production of a participatory process that involves all senses for viewers who may not otherwise be engaged in this material. The downside is the contrast between the beauty of the objects being photographed and the commentary that simultaneously criticizes the conditions by which those objects are produced is indirect and could be missed.

Never is there a direct call to action or a sense that viewers can do anything to substantially change the conditions they are invited to observe. While not an objective reinforcement of the material it depicts, the questions remain: to what extent do the techniques used in Machines facilitate indirect criticism, and can this critique lead to activism on the part of the viewer? Is nonintervention the best approach to critiquing labor conditions, or is a more direct call-to-action needed? If the latter is true, what form would that call-to-action take?

Multiple subjective experiences are possible at the conclusion of this film. This is both a benefit and a pitfall of the dialogic approach. Because Machines relies heavily upon the viewer’s ability to contextualize information, some spectators might be left with only the beauty of the images. This productively emphasizes the ambiguity of the subject’s relationship to late capitalism in a way that underscores that that the sensory connection to the object may limit the viewer’s ability to take direct action. Open-endedness and sensory engagement function as a sort of autocritique in Machines: we are fascinated by the dye-making process and the textiles shown, and troubled as we know this fascination to be amoral or immoral, allowing us to excuse the harms done to the workers. Machines therefore is a film about the means of producing beautiful textiles, but it also is a film about the act of watching political documentary. We cannot look away, but looking at the work does not solve the problems the work presents.

One thought on “August: Machines

  1. I admired this film at the Thessaloniki documentary festival where l served on the jury last year. Its rhythm and aesthetics are so different from the general fare one sees …LD it was not for the enchanting viewing experience, it would probably not have been as widely discussed and admired as it is. The question is if we can claim aesthetics and beauty in documentary are irrelevant?

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