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‘Machines’ Review: A Bracingly Physical Documentary About the True Cost of Cheap Labor

A spare and unflinching documentary about the true cost of cheap textiles, “Machines” doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the inhumane work conditions in countries like India, but it forces us to become palpably familiar with the awful facts of the matter. Applying a hyper-visceral vérité approach to a subject that might sound better suited to an infomercial, Rahul Jain’s debut feature is engineered to demolish the barrier between empathy and action, to narrow the distance between slaves and consumers.

This is a film that targets your heart, but works its way there through your senses rather than your sentiments. It doesn’t simply tell you how brutal it is to work 80-hour weeks while earning $100 a month, it forces you to to squint in the darkness of a windowless factory, to smell the aroma of dried sweat and motor oil, to feel the rhythm of the machines as they clatter and clack at all hours of the day (or is it the night?). Jain introduces us to some of the people who work in one of these hellish mills, but he never tells us their names — names are easy to forget, but smells and sounds have a way of sticking around.

Jain never tells us that his grandfather used to run a textile plant in India’s Gujarat state — the young director, who made “Machines” as a midterm project at CalArts, is almost a complete non-entity in the film — but the access he’s granted makes it easy to surmise that he comes from a rich family, and that he’s familiar with this grim world. His camera (operated by cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva) glides through the labyrinthine bowels of the film’s central factory with incredible grace, its movements as precise as those of the machines it’s there to see.

Jain is there, but also not there, and it’s fascinating to watch him mediate his presence. The workers notice him, but can seldom afford the time required to acknowledge his presence. One kid, no older than 12, nods off at his controls, and Jain just waits for him to wake up. And then there’s the early scene in which the camera comes across some workers who are relaxing out of sight from their supervisor; they fearfully scatter back to their posts as soon as they notice that they’re being watched. It’s a small moment, but it speaks volumes about the impassable class divide that splinters India into all of its different factions. The fact that Jain obviously comes from a higher socioeconomic strata is enough for the workers to assume that he only values them for their labor.

These men make roughly $3 an hour, and they spend an ungodly percentage of their lives in the unseen depths of these airless factories. One of them opens up to the camera, explaining that there’s no “cure” for their condition. “God gave us hands, so we have to work.” He can’t afford cigarettes, so he chews on raw tobacco — it’s his only earthly pleasure in a life of labor, the only respite in a day that consists of two shifts and a one-hour dinner break in between. “My only satisfaction is that everyone dies,” he says. “Not even the rich take anything with them.” There are no insurance plans, no regulations. They’re too exhausted to unionize, and someone gets murdered every time they try.

It’s bleak stuff, and Jain doesn’t insult his subjects by inserting grace notes of poetry in between all their pain. Still, the cinematography is so arresting, and the inertia of the manufacturing complex is so strong, that it’s easy to find yourself rolling along with the rhythm of it all. One day just bleeds into the next. If one worker is sick, another takes his place. They’re all cogs, of course, and the film doesn’t end until every last viewer is clear that these people are the machines referred to by its title.

That takes about 68 minutes, which is long enough to leave us with a more intimate, more urgent understanding of the cruelty that capitalism permits, but frustratingly short for an experiential documentary that’s so attuned to human endurance (chalk it up to the limitations of a midterm project). Although he makes time to introduce us to an infuriatingly callous factory boss who argues that his workers would become too comfortable if he paid them a living wage, Jain doesn’t give us the space we need to suss out the full implications of his doc, or even just to suffer through them more deeply.

What will happen to these people when their jobs are automated? How does a country have nuclear weapons and slave labor? What can we do to help? That last question is particularly sensitive, as the film ends by implicating those fortunate enough to watch it. “People just come here,” one worker says into the camera, “they look at our problems, and they leave.” There’s nothing any one of us can do, there’s no website we’re instructed to visit for more information. The system is a machine, it’s made of machines, it’s run by machines — it’s machines all the way down. It took an entire system to build it, and it will take an entire system to reset its factory settings.

Grade: B

“Machines” is now playing in theaters.

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