Half way through Machines, a documentary set in a textiles factory in Gujarat, we focus on a boy working on an assembly line. He is desperately tired: every few seconds his eyes close and his body sways with sleep. We worry that he might succumb and fall onto the conveyor belt, but each time he almost does he holds on to a piece of machinery and steadies himself. He looks at the camera with eyes spared of any legible emotion, giving us a sense of the vast, churning system that keeps him in place, sleepwalking between life and death.
India's uneven and rapid economic development has concentrated industry in areas like Gujarat, where thousands of labourers work in conditions that test the limits of depravity. The documentary's notes tell us that 12.6 million children are engaged in child labour in the country; that the Indian textile industry is worth 40 billion dollars, providing goods for a domestic and global market; and that 95 percent of the factories in the region have no trade unions on their premises. But none of this is directly conveyed on screen. The director of Machines, Rahul Jain, eschews written information in favour of mesmerising images: the film is iridescent with chemicals, dyes, fabrics, burning plastic and toxic sludge. The screen itself feels carcinogenic.
The opening scene is a continuous tracking shot that navigates the factory. There are furnaces spewing sparks and smoke; white sheets of finished cotton cascading onto the ground; and clanking, groaning machines being attended to by workers in filthy clothes. The camera glances at an arrangement of barrels and, out of the darkness, a sleeping boy stirs. The workers wash themselves on the factory floor using a hose and small bar of soap: the suds mix with red dye on the ground, creating a chemical froth. No doubt the substances they are exposed to are slowly, silently killing them.
There is a lot of talk these days about a near future of automated production and boundless luxury, when robots whir bloodlessly, doing our dirty work for us. Watching Machines, it is hard not to feel that this is a Western fantasy: we have surpassed the squalor of early industrialisation only by externalising it to the global south.
Jain, who comes from the Indian middle classes and studied at the California Institute of the Arts, doesn't impose his aesthetic on the factory; he lets the workers speak for themselves, and the film's most wrenching moments come from their testimony. "God gave us hands so we have to work," one man says, constructing a divine cosmology for his fate. He says that he, like thousands of others, migrated to work in Gujarat from neighbouring states to pay off personal debt. (The migration crisis doesn't always mean crossing national borders.) He can't afford cigarettes but he can afford chewing tobacco, which he rubs between his fingers like rosary beads. One child labourer tells us that each morning, when he arrives at the gates, he has a feeling in his stomach that tells him to turn around. "Poverty is harassment," another says.
Two men speak of their structural isolation within the workplace. They don't know who their boss is or even what he looks like, only the specific room they're meant to show up at every day. Jain then cuts to an interview with their boss, the factory owner. He is vile to the point of parody, playing ostentatiously with his over-sized mobile phone and surveying his workforce through CCTV. He has no qualms about letting a film-maker onto his property, presumably because he doesn't see his workers as fully human. "If I pay these illiterate folk too much and their stomach is no longer empty, then they won't care about the company," he reasons.
If there's a problem with Machines, it's that the class conflict Jain sets up – labour vs. capital – is so simple that it runs the risk of becoming an abstraction. He could have fleshed this out by exploring the world outside the workplace and seeing how it helps constitute the social relations on the factory floor. For example, the film is an exclusively male affair. Although many of these migrant workers have left wives behind in neighbouring states, there is obviously a social role played by women in the factory towns, and exploring this could have helped map a wider psychological terrain, as well as possible sites of resistance.
One form of resistance that Jain does broach is the workers' self-organisation into trade unions. But unions, it turns out, have little purchase in this fiefdom of factory owners. As one worker says, "If the labourers had unity, they wouldn't be going through this… But when the labourers do unite, the leader is usually killed. They finish him off." He glances nervously over his shoulder after saying this, to make sure no one is listening.
The workers are not short on demands – more than one person mentions an eight-hour working day – but they lack the institutions to make this, and their leverage, cohere. In one of the few times that Jain leaves the factory premises he is surrounded by scores of men in the nearby town. They are all willing to go on strike, they say, but they don't know how to make it happen. Then, as their frustration increases, they question the usefulness of Jain's presence: "People just come here, look at our problems and leave… Why have you come here, tell us honestly? You will leave after listening to us, just like the ministers do."
Jain doesn't answer them, but the question lingers over Machines: what can a filmmaker really do? Apart from making people aware of a certain problem, perhaps one answer lies within the formal measures of cinema itself. Jain's main cinematic influence seems to be the experimental work of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, who make documentaries that blend anthropology with the visual arts. Their influence is most obvious in the only scene that is explicitly choreographed, in which the workers dress up in the colourful saris and scarves that the factory produces, and pose for mysterious portraits. It is also present in the tracking shots, when Jain follows a worker from behind as he walks through the factory – creating an angle that looks like it should be in an Alan Clarke or Paul Thomas Anderson film. In these moments we experience the workers as protagonists, moving through the world not because they are commanded to but because they simply can. Briefly, documentary cinema gives them a new status, as subjects rather than objects. What is left is for political struggle to do the same.
'Machines' will make its UK premiere at the ICA's Frames of Representation film festival on the 21st of April. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Rahul Jain.