Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sundance ’17: Machines

Who know how many fingers and limbs have gotten caught in the gears of this Gujarat textile factory, but it is doubtful they ever stopped the machinery. Shifts are long and the pay is low, but the workers still travel miles to keep their jobs there. Rahul Jain captures and contemplates their exhausting labor in Machines (trailer here), which screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

If you want to see the behind-the-scenes “sausage-making” that goes on in the Indian textile industry than this is the film for you. Safety precautions appear minimal and sanitation is dubious. Yet, many of the workers (a number of them dispossessed farmers) cling to their jobs and dignity, claiming they are not exploited because they willingly work there. Still, others readily admit they would be delighted if management reduced shifts from twelve to eight hours, pointedly asking Jain if he has any ideas how to achieve such a goal. Right, he’ll gave to get back to you on that one.

Frankly, there is not much talking in Machines. It is mostly just take-it-all-in observation. Granted, the net effect is pretty much poverty porn, but the visuals are sharp and clearly very deliberately framed by cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villaneuva. The environment is overwhelmingly oppressive, much like Chaplin’s Modern Times except dingier, but the film itself looks crisp and striking.

If you are keeping score with Sundance documentaries, the plastic recycling plant in Plastic China looks like a much more pleasant work environment than the Gujarat factory, but Machines is the more stylish film. Despite the challenges issued late in the film, Jain clearly built up a level of comfort with his subjects. Reportedly, he lived amongst the factory workers for months before he even started shooting, so if the documentary police still consider him exploitative than probably nobody can make this film.

Machines is an impressive downer that just corralled Villaneuva the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Best Cinematography at Sundance. It certainly puts a human face on all the obsessive BRIC economic chatter. Recommended for admirers of films like Powaqqatsi, Machines will be the opening night selection of MoMA’s annual Doc Fortnight on February 16th, following its North American premiere at this year’s Sundance.