What outwardly seems like the most prosaic of titles turns out to be bristling with angry human-rights subtext in “Machines,” first-time helmer Rahul Jain’s gliding, quietly mesmerising documentary portrait of working rituals and conditions at a textile factory in the Gujarat state of western India. The film opens as a hushed, graceful study of machinery in motion, gazing lingeringly at the chomping metal jaws and sliding mechanical limbs of sundry presses, printers and mills to almost hypnotic effect — like an industrial answer to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s “Leviathan.” Yet a human element abruptly kicks in when Jain begins to interview the indecently hard-toiling men behind the steel and steam, and unsurprisingly finds them less enraptured by the process. “My only satisfaction is that everyone dies,” one of them observes ruefully; this highly accomplished IDFA premiere, potentially set for a gilded run on the documentary fest circuit, likewise has little use for sentimentality.
Nearly 15 minutes pass in “Machines” before one of the factory’s stoic-looking operatives speaks to camera. “God gave us hands, so we have to work,” he says, in a tone that doesn’t convey piety so much as glum resignation. The film’s patience pays off: By the time we hear these words, we’ve already witnessed enough squalor, and intuited enough physical and emotional anguish, amid the coldly impressive spectacle of the production line to render his sentiment quite heartbreaking. The camera, elegantly manned by Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva alongside the helmer (who also takes co-editing and sound duties), works at macro and micro levels, closing in on a wealth of expressive and reactive human detail, but also standing back to marvel at the functionality of the system — the film’s most serenely sustained shots recall the more recent work of Tsai Ming-liang in inviting us to let mostly still images change in implication before our eyes. At the end of the lines, veritable waterfalls of vibrantly colored fabrics, piling and rippling like whipped cream, almost offensively pretty against the otherwise gray, moldering surrounds of the workplace.
It’s a disconnect that underlines just how vast the chasm between product and producer can be in this industry: Those attractive, compellingly cheap, Asian-manufactured cotton wares that so many of us pick up in western malls feel so far removed from such circumstances as to muffle our ethical concerns about buying them. Jain, who smartly keeps “Machines” free of voiceover or any commentary bar the workers’ statements, keeps that debate entirely tacit. In one of the film’s most pointed, gallingly ironic images, these textile makers head for home during a heavy rainstorm, with only thin plastic bags to shield them from the elements.
The risk of condescension through pity is high in this kind of material, but Jain — who was born in Delhi and studied in the U.S. — is loath to deny his subjects any degree of agency in their plight. “Exploitation would mean I’m being forced to work here,” notes one worker tersely, after outlining his nightmarish work schedule of 12-hour shifts. The difference between slavery and accepting the only means of income available to these men — many of them economically disabled former farmers — is critically established, even if the pride in it is marginal. One weary worker exactingly explains the combination of “strength and brains” required for his position, while a teenage employee offers a saddening justification of child labor — “What you learn as a child you cannot learn as an adult” — that segues into a moderately more hopeful conclusion: “If I do this now, I can do any work later.” (None of the interviewees is named on-screen: a reflection, perhaps, of their dehumanized place in the machine.)
In a startling finale, however, the men’s testimony shifts from calm sufferance to something more piercing and accusatory in tone: the difference, in effect, between rhetorically shrugging, “What are ya gonna do?” and sincerely asking, “What are you gonna do?” The tables are turned on the filmmaker — one worker even meeting Jain’s probing lens with a camera phone of his own — as his subjects enquire as to the purpose of his film. “What are you directing here?” someone asks, reasonably enough, before launching into an impassioned criticism of previous outside observers who “just come here, look at our problems, and leave.” That Jain cannot offer them any answers is, oddly, what is most powerful about “Machines”: This simultaneously beautiful and abjectly unhappy film is forced to close by silently admitting its limitations.