One of the earliest films ever made was Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. The moving image consists entirely of what the title says – people leave a factory in France at the end of their shift. The camera doesn’t move. The film last all of 46 seconds. It is important for the new way of recording and viewing the world it initiated.
Machines picks up where Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory left off and smothers you in the sights and sounds of a fabric mill in India. The documentary shows workers leaving the factory, but it does this after showing all the things they do inside and letting them tell about the life conditions that keep them trapped in those working condition. Consisting mostly of steady-cam-on-the-move shots of workers in all sections of the factory, Machines asks is to see where out cloth comes from and the human costs of its creation. It’s an experiential films, primarily.
It’s also an advocacy documentary. Machines wants change for the better for the workers in the factory. Rather than being didactic about that desire, the film explores the various perspectives of the workers, their bosses, and others as to why the working conditions are what they are and why they don’t change. Director Rahul Jain lets the workers tell the camera that change needs to occur. He lets the workers accuse him (and us) of simply seeing what’s happening and then leaving without working for change. This is after he lets other workers insist on their own culpability in participating in this system instead of challenging it. Machines complicates a situation that other filmmakers would have reduced to a simple struggle between factory worker and factory owner. Machines spends enough time with these people in this place to capture it in its fullness.
While watching a worker painstakingly move a barrel of dye across the floor with the aid of a metal arm, I was reminded of a scene in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder that shows a person doing a menial job. Malick, of course, overlays his images with voice-over of people asking existential questions about life. The voices are those of the stars the movie mostly focus upon. The image is of an unnamed person. I took the juxtaposition to suggest that these people are having the same thoughts the more upper class people are having about the nature of existence. What else would these people be thinking about, the film suggests, as they do work that requires little thought?
Machines presents that idea clearly. It features very poor workers sharing their contemplations on poverty, work, and the meaning of life. Their answers aren’t any different than yours and mine. They see those answers reflected in their work and life. The questions and answers are persistent regardless of class.
I don’t mean to imply that these people should remain poor, that we shouldn’t do what we can to raise whole segments of the global society out of poverty, that they should be able to spend their time doing more than struggling to make enough money to clothe and feed themselves and their families. The need to eradicate poverty is urgent. The possibility has never been more tangible in all of human existence.
Rather, Machines showed me again that the rich and the poor aren’t that different. Their questions are the same. Their answers are the same. Their prayers are the same. Their fate is the same. The essential fact of human life is present in all regardless of their station as long as they interact with the world as humans.
That’s where Machine’s greatest indictment of the contemporary world lies, I think. It shows how the machine age tries to turn people into machines. But the human spirit burns. There is a fire that won’t die in each of us. I pray that fire overcomes everything soon.