India/Germany/Finland 2016, 1h 11min.
Director Rahul Jain’s camera travels around in a maze of machinery, dye, and fabrics. We witness workmen as they dye, fold, mix, wash, relax, eat and rest. Every now and then, the observations – always noise, usually motion – are intercut with brief interviews where the men, mostly migrant workers from other states, talk about their work, wages, poverty, lives, and the hopelessness of their situation. But, this is not a matter of exploitation, assures one of them. It is not always obvious what the men do and how their manual work contributes to the entire process. Often they seem mere extensions of the machinery they work with, a cog in it. They are subjected to the pace and rhythm of the machines, helping to fold the fabric, moving a mixer around, or attending to the unwinding of large textile rolls.
The parallels with Michael Glawogger’s work, most notably Megacities and Workingman’s Death, are obvious. Not just visually but also thematically. In the opening shot of Machines, sparks from an oven dance around a labourer who seems to scrape remains from an oven floor. The film ends with similar images. These could have been taken from either Megacities or Workingman’s Death. The camera roams around, getting lost between machines and fabrics in long takes, observing the textile rolls and the workmen from a subjective point of view. There undoubtedly is a system to all this, as a worker tells us, though it probably takes years to master. Of course, the abominable working conditions these men are subjected to is a theme. It is not just the physical labour, but also the working environment and lack of protection when working with chemicals or near gigantic machines during their 12-hour shifts. A young man is literally caught falling asleep while manning one. The approach to the workers as individuals, coupled with the aestheticization of the working place, is reminiscent of the Austrian filmmaker’s work. Mechanical processes, the combination of soft colourful textiles, steel machines and concrete floors, the physicality of muscled bodies, sweat and dirt, as the camera tries to catch the repetitious movements and rhythms of the place.
An exception to these grim dark images from the factory’s bowels are shots, silent and in slow motion, of a number of men on a rooftop, wrapped in colourful fabrics and throwing these up to wave in the wind. It provides them everything they do not have ‘downstairs’: colour, grace, light, dignity.
In the film’s second part, the poetry largely disappears as Jain moves into the upper world. It reminds us there is life beyond the industrial quarters: a meeting room where trade is conducted; trash being dumped outside; an interview about the difficulties of unionising the labourers; an interview with the boss who, although a worker says he never comes around, keeps an eye on things via surveillance cameras and voices a keen idea about why paying his employees more is a bad idea (it makes them too relaxed and they would only spend it on tobacco and alcohol), and, at the very end, a gathering of men, farmers who argue they need factory work because of failed crops and who question the filmmaker about his motives: why does not he help them get 8-hour shifts? Jain implicitly affirms there is nothing he can do by returning to the underworld.
The title can be seen to have a double meaning. Just like Glawogger seemed to suggest, with Workingman’s Death, that it was not the workman who dies but rather his profession, so Jain seems to suggest that the title does not so much refer to the huge factory machines but to the labourers themselves. Men once made machines but now the machines make men. Jain is of Indian descent and the film’s press kit states he used to get lost in a similar factory owned by his grandfather. Jain trained in California and Machines is funded with German and Finnish money. In that same press kit, the sales agent is quoted as saying: “In its thematic relevance and artistic aspiration, the movie should also be seen as a beacon of a young and emerging Indian documentary scene, and can pave the way for broader awareness of Indian film, and especially documentary making in the West.” Watching Machines, considering its production and remembering Glawogger, I can but see a Western eye not quite getting to grips with globalization.