The documentary exposing the dark reality of fast fashion

We meet Machines director Rahul Jain, whose striking new film snagged the Sundance World Cinema Documentary award for Cinematography – watch a clip here

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Machines stillCourtesy of Jann Pictures

The fast fashion industry has come under much scrutiny in recent years, with documentaries and journalistic exposés revealing the inhumane conditions suffered by factory workers worldwide at the hands of multi-million dollar clothing chains (not to mention the buyers turning a blind eye to the question of where their clothes come from). But while there’s certainly a greater awareness surrounding such issues, the fight for a more ethical approach to fashion is far from over – a point hammered home in Machines, a poignant new film from first-time director Rahul Jain.

For his take on the subject, Jain ventures inside one vast textile mill in Gujarat, India, capturing its inner-workings in breathtakingly cinematic detail. For the first 13 minutes, there is no dialogue. Instead, sweeping camera work guides us dizzyingly around every nook and cranny of the labyrinthine space. The first thing you notice are the towering, grey machines, guzzling up brightly coloured fabrics like giant robots. Then you notice the men – and boys – no less mechanical in their precision and skill as they mix dyes, stoke furnaces and prime material. When they’re not working, the labourers steal a moment’s rest – sleeping on bundles of white fabric, or stopping to chew tobacco to give themselves a lift. No music accompanies the footage, just the rhythmic whirring and ticking of machinery. When a small boy drifts in and out of slumber while straightening out cloth as it filters through his designated machine, the effect is almost contagious.

Indeed, what makes the film so effective is the way in which Jain plunges the viewer into the workers’ world, never forcing drama or action, instead patiently documenting the exhausting monotony of their task. When there is dialogue, we hear from the workers themselves – and at one point from their fat-cat boss, who matter-of-factly tells the camera that he shouldn’t pay them so well as they’re much more dedicated to the business when their bellies are empty. By “so well”, we discover, he means three US dollars per 12-hour shift and most of the workers take just one hour’s break between shifts, such are the financial pressures of providing for their families. The men discuss the need for unionisation and strike action, as well as the dead-end any attempt at this inevitably leads to – “the bosses just ask who the leader is, and then kills them,” we are told.

Jain does not look to provide answers to their predicament but instead allows his subjects to pose the questions, which linger menacingly in the air as the closing credits roll. “People just come here, look at our problems and leave. Nobody is ready to take any action,” one man shouts at the film’s climax. “Tell us what to do...”

To coincide with the powerful film’s UK release, we speak to the talented 25-year-old director to find out more about the intentions behind it and the story of its making.

How did the idea for the film come about?

Rahul Jain: That’s a difficult question. It’s not a film that you wake up one day and decide to make. I didn’t understand inequality, I was always curious about it, and about what I could do about it. One day my teacher, said, ‘You need to make work about something you know, somewhere you feel like you belong.’ That’s when the factory idea first came to me.

My maternal grandfather owned a very similar textile factory to the one in the film and I used to stay with him every summer from the age of zero to five. I was never allowed to go into the factory though, so I used to sneak in and walk around for hours. I think the sensorial impressions that are imprinted upon my mind from that time, when I still didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate what I experienced, have remained very strong. Then around the same time in 2013, the Rana Plaza accident happened in Bangladesh and I also chanced upon a book called Workers by Sebastiao Salgado in my school library. All these things coincided and I eventually asked my family if they could connect me with another factory or dying mill in the area – this one was the most well-known, the one where all the labourers wanted to work.

So was part of your motivation a sense of personal guilt?

Rahul Jain: Absolutely there was class guilt, this work wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Tell me a bit about your decision not to include the names of any people or locations…

Rahul Jain: This was somewhat for the security of the people, including the boss, but also because there is no point in finger pointing, or singling out one person or place. It’s a complete civilisational structure, a macro-level; I wanted people to think about the bigger picture.

“At first, I worried, ‘Am I just going to make a work that’s like watching paint dry?’ so asked my teacher this question, and he said, ‘Well aren’t the lives of these people there just like watching paint dry?’” – Rahul Jain

So how political was your agenda going in?

Rahul Jain: When I first started location scouting, I went in with a very militant attitude; I kept trying to raise political questions about pay and money explicitly in a way that wasn’t very calculated or respectful. I felt the problem was much further away from me. But once I started working with my cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, who has a very different way of seeing the world to me and who worked in a factory in Mexico City as a child, he made me realise that I had to take control of the situation and to calm down. Once I understood that my aesthetic sensibility calmed down too.

In what way?

Rahul Jain: There are two different kinds of documentary filmmaking: one is more in tune with the non-fictional moment, so you feel you need to get as much information – about the environment, the place, the people – down as possible because the moment will expire. The other method is calming accepting that life is just on loop, unfolding in its own way. Once I was able to get into that kind of rhythm, my way of looking at this factory with a cinematic gaze changed. At first, I worried, ‘Am I just going to make a work that’s like watching paint dry?’ so asked my teacher this question, and he said, ‘Well aren’t the lives of these people there just like watching paint dry?” And I couldn’t disagree.

You very much remove yourself from the film. Was this a deliberate decision?

Rahul Jain: Absolutely. By the end of the film, the people I was working with thought I was crazy because I systematically wanted to remove every ounce of my presence from it. Firstly because I feel that the film is already from my perspective, in the way it comes across. I also think some people at my school were looking for this grand Buddha narrative: rich kid goes to poor factory and films, and this idea terrorised and mortified me – to think of the film like this. Also because I wanted the audience to be involved in the dialogue with the workers, rather than acting as the conduit myself. Lastly, I was not interested in any consummation because in this world everything is always up in the air. Or rather it’s downhill, like an avalanche, with no force impeding the downward spiral.

Was it difficult not to answer their pleas for advice on changing their situation, or not to chastise the factory owner? 

Rahul Jain:  Of course, when the workers asked me what they should do, a part of my brain was screaming silently all kinds of things. But I didn’t have any answers; I was a silent observer, almost mute, taking refuge behind the viewfinder. Then with the boss, you have to remember that this guy isn’t just one person. His way of looking at things is societal; more than half the world thinks like him. It doesn’t make it right, but to think that you can convert him by some ethereal goodness is a dreamy notion. My goal was just to engage him, while remaining true to myself, in order to invoke honest responses.

Did you do wider research into the fast fashion industry as a whole ahead of filming or was the goal always to keep it narrowed in?

Rahul Jain: I tried to keep it internalised within one ecosystem. I asked myself that question a lot – do I want the whole cake, or do I want a slice of life? I chose the latter: a densely packed, rich slice of life. I was terribly afraid of being the first time filmmaker who has too much to say. So restraint and refrain were very aggressive creative aspects of this.

Does this factory produce textiles for companies worldwide?

Rahul Jain:  Yes, very much so, for all the usual suspects – high street chains. I can’t name them because I don’t have definite proof, but from what the workers told me it was a wide net. And remember, it’s just one factory: there are 1300 factories in the space of four kilometers squared, employing more than a million and a half people.

Machines is out now – watch an exclusive clip from the film below 

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