Following in the footsteps of other documentaries from the last decade and a half — including “Behemoth,” “Darwin’s Nightmare” and “Workingman’s Death” — Rahul Jain’s “Machines” casts an unflinching eye on dire poverty, trafficking in the disjunction between surreal, aesthetically striking images and sounds and the squalor those images depict.
As the movie begins, lengthy Steadicam shots survey the layout of a textile factory in Sachin, India, and introduce its workers. The scenery is so gray that fabrics, embers and dyes are just about all that pops against the background. The ideological charge leveled for decades at this strain of filmmaking is that such eye-catching tableaus romanticize poverty, but prettified squalor has become sadly familiar in global documentary filmmaking. In “Machines,” even at barely more than an hour, the style leads to diminishing returns.
“Machines” is at its strongest when interviewing the workers, who aren’t named and who, the film not so subtly implies, have become cogs in the machinery themselves. One man says he has taken loans to travel for work and rides a standing-room-only train on his 1,000-mile journey to the factory. In his view, this situation would only be exploitation if he were forced to work there. Another worker asks, “Why would I get angry if I am being paid for the work I do?” The shifts pay next to nothing and last 12 hours.
The imperious bosses openly disdain their employees. One dismisses his workers as careless with money and, in many cases, uninterested in their families (although we’ve already heard otherwise).
The film — Mr. Jain’s first feature — seems to argue that the workers, facing few or no other options, have succumbed to a form of Stockholm syndrome, and points to unionization as a potential corrective. “If the workers unite, they can get the bosses to yield,” one worker says. “But the laborers are not united.”
If they are parts in a machine, maybe they can form a whole. And even then, success is not guaranteed.
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