Film Review: Machines

Telling testaments of toil and trouble.
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Debuting director Rahul Jain displays an all-too-rare combination of artistic vision and social conscience in Machines, surveying the nightmarish working conditions at a fabric factory in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Made as a midterm project at CalArts—Jain divides his time between California and Delhi—this brisk but bracing dispatch bowed to enthusiastic receptions in the main competition of the world's biggest documentary festival, IDFA of Amsterdam. The eye-opening and austerely uncompromising India-Finland-Germany co-production received its North American premiere in the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance 2017.

Showing levels of controlled concentration and unfussy flair far beyond what may be expected from a "student film," Machines powerfully evokes the sights and sounds—and almost even the smells—of a sprawling, stygian textiles plant south of India's eighth-largest (but very seldom filmed) city, Surat.

Seemingly granted all-access privileges, Jain and his collaborators (he shares cinematography credits with one, editing with two) compile what amounts to a quietly damning exposé of dehumanization without recourse to onscreen captions, voiceover or non-diegetic music.

Adhering to long-established and still-fashionable fly-on-the-wall techniques, Jain is invisible and pretty much inaudible throughout, though he does include several interview sections with the workers—many of them no more than teenagers, most of them working punishing, numbingly repetitive 12-hour shifts in sweltering conditions for pittance wages.

They speak honestly, openly, movingly about their trap of drudgery and exploitation. ("I come here of my own free will," one says sighing.) At one startling moment toward the end, the unseen Jain is directly questioned by an interviewee, who forcefully questions the director's intentions and damningly compares him with hand-wringing but ineffectual politicians.

Unfortunately, Jain then simply cuts to the next scene, robbing us of what would surely have been a lively and informative exchange. Then again, the neophyte director presumably trusts in the humanistic power of his art to convey the sincerity and depth of his engagement.

What quickly emerges is a claustrophobic, haunting vision of the kind of grim workplace traditionally associated with the U.K. of the Victorian era—when India was part of the British Empire—with fat-cat Dickensian bosses evidently operating under minimal regulation and with no goal other than short-term profit maximization.

"When laborers do unite," notes one of the workers, "their leader is usually killed." Given a vast, impoverished and desperate labor pool to draw on—one man mentions that he traveled a thousand miles in 36 hours via train from his distant home state—such factories can of course thrive, especially in the context of what seem like very lax health and safety controls.

Colorful cascades of liquids and chemicals and images of sludge dumping hint at ecological horrors lying just below these grime-engrained surfaces. It comes as a shock when one of the bosses casually mentions that the plant, which churns out endless yards of brightly hued material for garments, is just a dozen years old.

In just over an hour—the credits roll at the 68-minute mark—the viewer is granted an overwhelming sensory immersion into a hidden, secretive environment. External shots are few and far between—the first comes 45 minutes in—as Jain's cameras nosily prowl vast, subterranean expanses.

Particular credit belongs to those responsible for the sound design: Jain's team is headed by Susmit “Bob” Nath of the aptly monikered Aural Mayhem Studio of Mumbai (with postproduction mixing overseen by Adrian Baumeister at The Post Republic in Berlin). A major element in Machines's impact is its grinding but varied sonic intensity, a rumbling cacophony of susurrations, clanks, bells and deep rumbles—among such a noise-scape, the human voice is often a tiny, submerged component.--The Hollywood Reporter

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