As concerns grow in the West about the looming threat of automation, debut director Rahul Jain reminds us of the human automation that underpins much of our own capitalist structure. His camera unflinchingly observes the Dickensian working conditions of a giant textile factory in Gujarat, India, watching and speaking with the men who are worked to exhaustion. The further we travel through each level of the dilapidated factory, beyond the grimy mechanics and the dehumanised workers, the harder it becomes to decipher exactly which machines the title is alluding to.
Jain's approach is a simple one that enables you to take in the sights, sounds (and imagine the smells) of a working life inside these industrial workhouses. This is only one such factory but as the camera pans out to reveal near the end, it is representative of the many that exist across the world. There is no narration or questions posed from behind the camera, allowing the words spoken by the workers to resonate clearly in our minds. Distant family connections enabled Jain the opportunity to film without restriction in the factory, capturing a devastating picture of life below the poverty line.
The workers have no choice but to slave away on 12 hour shifts, many of them trapped in high interest loans that enabled them to travel to the city in search of work. A $3 payment for the half day slog is meant to pay for their food, rent and if they have one, feed their families. The paltry returns mean that after some food and a brief rest, many are back to work a short while later to undertake another gruelling 12 hours. As we see, some do not even leave the factory, simply passing out in a corner on one of many giant spools of material, where the whirring mechanics sound less intrusive.
Jain’s decision to utilise long takes elevates the film above being just a political statement about exploitation and the dehumanisation of workers. There is real beauty found amongst the repetitive nature of their routines, as their tired bodily actions move in unison with the rhythms of the machines they are subconsciously connected to. Under dank, depressing lighting, reams of brightly patterned cloth are readied for the next stage in the process. These sparks of illumination stand in stark contrast against filthy machinery and the empty stares of the men operating them.
Almost everything we see and hear is enough to make your blood boil but the director’s absence from the frame shifts a certain level of responsibility over to the viewer. Rather than seeing it as just another chapter of poverty porn, the challenge lies in how actively we respond. The men themselves pose this question outside of the factory, as they speak directly to the camera: “Why have you come here? You will leave after listening to us, just as the ministers do. For us workers it’s the same story, on and on again.” With an arrogant boss sneering down at the workers through his office based security network, we are left to question our own role in sustaining this systematic betrayal of human liberty.