A scene from Machines (Kino Lorber)

Machines is an unusually and outstandingly filmed documentary that is also a stirring socio-economic condemnation. The simple but evocative title evokes both admiration for man-made industrial might and empathy for the men who are slaves to its constant demands. The filmmakers distill how one noisy, dirty, smelly dyeing mill reveals the impacts of climate change, globalization, and the demand for cheap labor today.

Director Rahul Jain, as a Cal Arts student, went back home to Surat in the western state of Gujarat, the center of India’s centuries-old textile export industry. In his childhood memories of summer visits to his grandfather’s textile factory, the equipment loomed above him, and he at first wanted to recapture those feelings. He pursued his family connections to get complete access to a very distant relative’s mill. He and Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva first came in 2013 to observe the around-the-clock, 12-hour shifts of 1,500 workers for two months (by June it was too hot to operate cameras). They returned to film at the factory four different times for two months each.

The camera pans across images of the big rolls of fiber, piles of cloth, sacks of cloth, fiber soaking in huge tubs, a wide expanse of fibers running up into a vibrating tower, and cloth stretched on drying frames. We see pots, vats, and barrels of dyes. Brown dye is painted on cloth, and blue fibers float in the air. There are so many rolls of cloth that some seem to be rotting in liquid.

Most of all, there’s the relentless, claustrophobically magnified, racket. Jain used 70 background tracks to capture all the machine sounds. The visuals and audio start stimulating sensual awareness of the conditions. None of the workers wears any protective gear. At most, some younger men (employees include young teens and children) wear ear pods to try and blend the relentless noise with loud music. You almost choke on the cotton fibers in the air; some of the workers have a persistent cough. You can also almost smell the stench of the dyes; in a Q&A at this year’s Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art, Jain identified the overpowering chemical smell as ammonia.

All day, two men stand under a clattering tower of fiber, looking up and reaching errant threads and moving them back on track. The roving camera captures exhaustion, and some men sleep on piles of cloth rolls during the brief meal break. Others barely stay awake standing at their machine posts, and danger seems imminent. (No accidents are recorded.)

The manager asserts that these are good jobs for the illiterate workers, claiming some have even worked there for a dozen years. His wife is nagging for a new color TV, plus he’s feeling the competition from other countries, so he keeps the prices down for his colorful wares to sell to Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. (The only restriction on Jain’s filming was not to show his designs, what with his copying them from other sources.) Brief, glum interviews with the workers during their break reveal their resignation: “We have to work.” Others shrug at deaths or illnesses in the family—there is no other option. Jain noted that two percent of the workers are women, usually widowed or abandoned; though he interviewed them, they wanted to remain private.

When the camera ventures out beyond the trash and chemical runoff during a shift break, employees gradually surround it, and they quickly and desperately describe how they got to the mill and why. Formerly farmers from drought-plagued Uttar Pradesh, they all went into debt to travel south for 36 hours on the 990-mile train ride. They make about $3 a shift for $100 a month and have tried to get a union going to demand eight-hour shifts, but the factories have ruthlessly gone after union organizers. The Indian textile and garment industry is an estimated $40 billion, lightly regulated sector.

For several years, Jain worked to finish what started out as a mid-term project, which underwent several editors and 87 rough cuts. The closest cinematic comparisons I’ve seen are Jennifer Baichwal’s tribute to Edward Burtynsky’s photography in Manufactured Landscapes (2007) and Kevin Everson’s celebration of unionized labor in his eight-hour-shift opus Park Lanes (2015). Jain cites the influence of Sebastião Salgado’s photography book Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993). But I also see the visual tradition of pristine composition at the service of controlled outrage going back to Lewis Hine in the early 20th century and Dorothea Lange and the Photo League during the Depression. I hope this extraordinary documentary will have as strong an impact.

Written and Directed by Rahul Jain
Released by Kino Lorber
English and Hindi with English subtitles
India/Germany/Finland. 72 min. Not rated