Rahul Jain’s film Machines, a documentation of the lives of oppressed cloth mill workers in Gujarat, does more than just the job of mere documenting. Machines is a three-pronged title, alluding to the factory machines the men work with, the workers themselves who work like automatons and become cogs in a systemically oppressive behemoth, and the machine of the camera itself – which both tries to expose the workers’ conditions and thereby perhaps liberate them, and paradoxically, at the same time fixes the oppressed to a gaze that only the privileged can possess. Further, at a deliciously ambiguous climactic moment towards the end, the film throws up questions about what constitutes the very notions of reality and truth in a documentary film.
The film makes no bones about its political stand of being resolutely on the side of the oppressed mill workers. But the very act of the filming of the destitute by someone belonging to the privileged set is fraught with complexity. One of the first shots in Machines is a Steadicam shot, with the camera gliding through the mill seamlessly, observing the workers who mostly do not react to it, until the end of this shot when one of the men asks the workers to get ready and stand up for the camera. A number of workers immediately stand up as commanded and prepare themselves to be gazed at. This shot, a precursor of sorts, sets up a theme that finds expression a number of times in the film. The camera seems to represent a certain privilege that the person wielding it possesses over the ones who are the focus of its attention. One comes across the same privilege in the office of the mill owner who surveils his workers through a glut of CCTV cameras. Significantly, we are introduced to this brazenly callous owner immediately after one of the mill workers complains that he has never ever seen his boss. The act of seeing itself then becomes a political one. The owner of course uses the one sided gaze of the CCTV cameras to wield enormous power. But the long held shot of his CCTV monitor, through which he has undeniable access to this act of gazing at the workers complicates things further. Simply because, visually speaking, the images being recorded by the CCTV cameras seem to replicate precisely the footage we have seen previously of the mill workers performing their various chores – but through the lens of the filmmaker’s camera. The filmmaker subtly implicates himself, then, as one of the privileged few, along with the mill owner, as someone who has a certain exploitative power over the dispossessed by virtue of owning the machine that is the camera. What makes Machines a rich and complex film is that the filmmaker’s humanism works almost in tandem with the film’s acute awareness of the disproportionate power the filmmaker wields with the camera. The workers talk of rebellion, of unionization, of making the bosses toe the line. One of them talks about why unionization has not worked here. If a leader emerges among the workers, the bosses simply have him killed. Immediately after the worker confides this to the camera, he turns around, fear writ large on his face, to see if he is being overheard. It is inescapably ironic that he does not realize that this clandestine confession is being relayed to thousands through the very camera whose presence he has perhaps so got used to that it has ceased to matter. Towards the end, however, the director confronts his guilt when a crowd of mill workers collects around him and questions his motivation behind making this film. Will he get them justice, the workers question, or is he too exploiting them? And then someone in the crowd fishes out a mobile phone camera and starts to film the filmmaker back. The gaze is being returned by the dispossessed, and India’s mobile revolution has a role to play in this democratic event. But how democratic are the actual circumstances, really, when the marginalized remain so, despite this momentary act of retaliation?
The camera in Machines largely performs – itself a loaded term – its job in a direct, observational style. Interspersed here and there are a few interviews in which the workers speak their minds. So even as it fixes them to its gaze, the camera is also giving a voice to the workers, but the cumulative effect of the film, nevertheless, is that of the almost silently suffered oppression of the workers. The dingy interiors of the mill accentuate the sense of suffocation. But the film, as it hurtles towards a close, in a climactic shot, overturns many of these very tropes it had set up earlier. In a sudden change of register, the workers appear, out of the dungeon of the mill and into bright sunlight on the mill’s rooftop, draped in pretty looking fabric which they themselves have produced. Shot in slow motion, this minute long surreal and lyrical shot, which the filmmaker said appeared to him first in a dream, ends with the workers flinging off these colorful gossamer fabrics. This dream like sequence has an instantly liberative effect and seems like a radical and subversive gesture. It seems that for once the mill workers stop being the mutely suffering destitute and actually come to possess some kind of agency, a voice, even though it is mediated through the imagination of the filmmaker. The characters, hitherto largely passive, suddenly turn into participants, as active performers and collaborators. Perhaps this shot also stands out because it marks a sudden shift in the genre of the film itself. From a verite style documentary, the film momentarily shifts into the realm of the staged, the quasi fictional. In a discussion after the screening of the film, the scene was compared to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, but it seemed to remind one even more of the films of the American non fiction filmmaker Robert Greene, whose films Actress and Kate Plays Christine explore the idea of not just performance but specifically the act of performance in the documentary. The latter film, in fact, faced a critical backlash of sorts, for not being documentary enough. In fact the idea of performance in documentary has been explored in numerous non fiction films, from Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, to Victor Erice’s El Sol Del Membrillo, the latter also foregrounding the role of the camera and made with the active participation of its on screen protagonist. But why even stop there? The trope of performance in non fiction cinema goes as far back to perhaps the very first feature length documentary itself, Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.
The shift in formal register from verite to deliberately staged, actually touches upon one of the underlying questions not just about documentary filmmaking, but also about what constitutes the notion of reality or truth itself. Many see the act of performance in a documentary or of overt directorial intervention as a sort of betrayal of some sort of an ethical code behind documentary filmmaking. Perhaps it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that documentaries have more power to subvert dominant socio-political structures and may be a more subversive kind of filmmaking than fiction itself. This may be because of the implicit trust the viewer places in documentaries because of its ‘realistic’ or literally ‘documentary’ nature, and an assumption or expectation of a certain fealty to the truth. But the documentary is also a narrative, and like all narrative, is a construct. The characters being recorded on screen in documentaries are very often aware of the camera and one wouldn’t be too wrong to say that they are displaying their performative selves. The camera itself, or the person behind it, selects a frame, edits the footage which means naturally omitting several things, arranging them in a structured pattern and imposing a certain necessarily artificial order, and then perhaps further buttressing a point through the sound design or music. In short, much is left out, and the rest is artfully arranged and accentuated. This is not to say that there is then, no truth in documentary filmmaking. But the fact is that there are no easy binaries, between what constitutes truth and untruth, or between documentary and fiction (or the use of fictive elements or techniques). This is not just a political point but one that goes to the very heart of the human condition – the inability to experience and/or express everything. What constitutes ‘reality’? And is fealty to the so called reality the only way to get to the ‘truth’? And is there any one single truth? The fealty to reality or truth can go only so far when reality or truth itself are such complex notions. In this sense then, all art is manipulation or deception, even when one aims to express the most heartfelt subjective truths. Everything we read, view, or watch on screen is mediated, filtered through the artist’s selective vision, his or her consciousness. And why just art, when all narrative itself is selective and therefore in a certain sense, manipulation. As it is we live in a fraught age when even journalism is an often premeditated selection of, or even distortion of, reality or facts. The distinction between art and journalism is often a tenuous one in documentary filmmaking as well and documentary makers are often left defending their roles as artists first. And yet, at the heart of all the manipulation, several works of art, documentaries included, do bring us face to face with the authentic truth. In fact, what makes Machines an important film is also that despite being a narrative arrangement premised on artifice, like all art necessarily is, it does display a certain truth. It presents, precisely through its artful manipulation of audio-visual elements, a counter narrative to the rather misleading one of ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, exposing the actual sordid reality behind the PR driven blitzkrieg, a propagandist narrative of wealth and prosperity for all in the Indian Prime Minister’s own home state. This is a film that presents a number of ethical conundrums at its core but manages to navigate its way through them more or less successfully.
Divya Sachar is a Delhi based writer and filmmaker.