Review of Machines a film by Rahul Jain
‘My only satisfaction is everyone dies. Nobody takes anything with them. Even the rich go, they leave the world with nothing.’ The consolation of Indian philosophy.
5 February 2018
The BBC recently broadcast a film documentary called Machines, you can still view it on their catch up service. It is a depiction of the operations of a giant textile producing complex in the Indian region of Gujarat. It was made by a film maker called Rahul Jain and one can only wonder what his reasons were for making it and how he got permission to patrol about a large mill complex with a hand held camera and recording equipment. The machines in question look antiquated by contemporary specifics, absolutely no robotics, the noise they make is deafening, the temperature in the building looks sweltering, the roof leaks when it rains, the floors are dirty and strewn with lose debris and the smell from the dyes are surely stomach churning. Perhaps the filmmaker was granted permission to film only the ‘beauty’ or ‘power’ of the machines, and expected to leave the labourers attending the machines to keep out of the frame while shooting? In any case the workers are in view for a lot of the time. I read online that his family once owned a textile mill so perhaps he had the right social connections to get to film inside.
If you were offered a choice between working in this dark satanic mill and doing a stretch in an old Victorian prison you would likely opt for the latter, it would definitely be better for your long term physical health, the factory has all the atmosphere of an industrial catacomb. People don’t so much work in the place as inhabit it like stone statues, they carry out their tasks without the comfort of health and safety rules or inspections, boys and men move heavy machinery about in their bare feet, mix up toxic dyes by hand, all the while breathing in fumes, they risk losing their fingers and hands by pulling fabrics in and out of steam driven rollers and they climb in and out of giant washing vaults. Some labourers seem to do more than just go to work in the factory, they seem to actually live there, the work shifts are so long that it more convenient for them to eat, wash and sleep in the less busy part of the sweltering catacomb than to go home and come back the next day.
The film is in fact a documentary of the kind usually referred to under the generic phrase Cinema Verite. The term gained currency in the early sixties as a descriptor of a documentary form that used handheld film and sound techniques to grab hold of the immediacy of things as they happened, without any staging or scripting. The technical side of Cinema-Verite is something that has been copied and pasted into mainstream film and television, in the cops on patrol sort of TV show and rock bands on the road documentaries. But in origin it was radical in intention, espousing a new philosophy of filmmaking that sought to capture the lives of ordinary people without the imposition of the contrivances of a bourgeois director, or the words of an educated scriptwriter, foregoing the voice of the all-knowing narrator who pretended to know more the lives of people than they could articulate for themselves. The expression itself is attributed to sociologist Edgar Morin who was a member of the French communist party until he was expelled in 1950. He traced the philosophy of the documentary form back to the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, the instigator a forgotten Soviet filmmaker called Dziga Vertov who was an artistic rival and critic of Sergei Eisenstein’s more famed historical recreations like Battleship Potemkin, using staging and actors combined with rapid editing techniques. One thing Vertov especially disliked was the use made by filmmakers of music to unnaturally enhance the drama and exaggerate moods.
Some of the elements of both the technique and the philosophy are evident in Machines, there is no music, no voice over offering adding details, we are not told basic facts like where the factory is actually located, we are not told the name of the factory, who owns it, how many workers really work there, to do so would to break the spell of immediacy, by introducing the opinions of an external narrator or director over the direct evidence of the raw material. If this method of documentary filmmaking was taken to its logical conclusion it would become something like silent cinema, but of course it stops short as it must and we do get a vein of external information. The information in so far as it exists comes near the end. We hear the words of a contractor who boasts how easy it is to prevent the workers organising a union by giving them a slap, some words form ‘a boss’ who complains that the workers are worthless and lazy and finally pleading words from workers who ask the filmmaker what is he doing to help them improve their lot. They say they want an end to 12 hour shifts but they can’t get any ‘researcher’ or ‘minister’ to listen. The film just about ends with the words ‘you are asking us about our problems, when we present them to you, why don’t you do something about it? The question can only ever be a rhetorical one for makers of Cinema Verite.