Rahul Jain’s debut, Machines (2017), investigates the inner workings of a textile factory in India. The film explores the factory floor, the managerial staff, and the selling floor where the value of goods is decided. Reminiscent of Farida Patcha’s My Name Is Salt (2013), Jain’s film reflects the obscured and distanced sources of the objects we consume, using rhythm, time and stagnancy to throw us into a hellish landscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.
Machines takes us into a labyrinthine silk factory in Sachin, India. Windowless floors and basements show the many laborious processes that produce screen-printed silks. The factory could have been borne of Ridley Scott’s imagination (somewhere between the spaceship tunnels of Alien and street levels of Blade Runner ). Composed of interviews, interspersed with long, unbroken takes of workers performing repetitive physical labor, Machines deftly cuts a portal through the machine of international consumption. It lends us sight into what is otherwise a process hidden and distant from the everyday lives of the middle to upper class westerners who may encounter the film.
Perhaps the most troubling and important element of the documentary is our position as viewers. The finger of blame is pointed somewhat at us, the larger consumers of the products being made in the factory, and the whole documentary is steeped in the frustration of the worker underneath the systemic layers of profit above him. Yet the film manages to avoid spiraling into a flat-out critique of capitalism, which may be a strategic choice to retain the allegiance of the broader swathe of viewers. In an interview Jain states the confusion of the workers he was filming. “They’re coming up to me and saying, “Who’s the hero in this movie? Who’s the villain in this movie?” I say, “You’re the heroes. I’m the villain.” Crucially Jain’s choice to position himself as the villain — one who would uninterruptedly watch a young boy fall asleep at his work post, in an uncomfortable, unflinching take — reflects our own position too. We are given the comfortable view of the factory. We are voyeurs, left undamaged by the processes we see. We watch from a distance but are not necessarily provoked to action, something addressed by the gathering of workers towards the conclusion of Machines, who question what Jain is doing to help them. And the bad taste that lingers afterwards: what does this documentary do for the workers?
Most directly it informs of us of the distant and obscured origins of things, perhaps promoting us to make different choices about how we consume. But does the diversion of funding to a workplace like this address any of the problems experienced by the worker? The issues surrounding wage and labor disparities globally are complex beyond individual comprehension. Perhaps the only minute level of control we can excise as consumers is to recognize the use value of objects we own, maintain them rather than replace them, and to stay aware of our own position in the many-fold hierarchies of production. We should remain aware that costs of purchase go beyond the financial. But still, it is hard to shake a feeling of helplessness after watching the unflinching Machines. The face of reality is not reconcilable with what we had conjured up.