documentary review - Machines by Rahul Jain [with v+v original video]
This week I watched Machines by Rahul Jain, an official selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Call me jaded, but recently I haven't been able to get through a fashion industry or environmental doc or article without getting super heated about dramatized, exaggerated, and at times even falsified information. With each film maker, writer, and blogger, competing with one another, not for the truth, but, to generate the most buzz-worthy content by using a liberal policy on what journalism is; I keep finding the most talked about news often leaves me wanting to scream to anyone that will listen.. ‘BUT WAIT, that’s not entirely true!’
my take away
This was not the case with Machines. I was super surprised when I left the film feeling a little bored, I'd seen it all before. Rahul, showed exactly what it is. That is what a typical print house and dye house in India looks like. Nothing was staged or over exaggerated, the audience got exactly what he saw. He did his job as the man behind the lense of a documentary perfectly!
One of my friends who has never been to India and has no idea about how factories, mills, and print and dye houses operate had a completely different takeaway than me. Where I was bored by the same old scenes I have seen so many times IRL, they were shocked by the inhumane conditions, lack of regulations, and general chaos.
I realized that to someone who didn’t understand what was going on, the film could have been a wow, omg, wtf moment. To me, most of it was nothing crazy, excluding the scene with the child falling asleep at the machine, yes, that was horrible. I have always struggled to release the footage I have taken overseas, hell, even some of the stuff that goes on in the states, because general “India” or every day “factory operations” and real poverty or real unsafe work condition can be visually confusing if you aren’t already accustomed to, and have experienced the terrain.
I know the article that most people would expect me to write would be “Oh, this is so horrible”. But, there is something even more interesting at play here and something that is part of a much larger conversation. The lack of narration created a need for clarification on what was just typical India and manufacturing (that goes on even here in the states) and what was sub par factory conditions. There is a difference.
So to help anyone who left Machines with questions or concerns here are some of my annotations.
Barefeet and flip flops
Let’s start with the synopsis on the Film Forum website “in which men and children work 12-hour days for a pittance, some barefoot, some in flip-flops”. This, literally, makes me roll my eyes - it's is a prime example of everyday India being confused with poverty and workers rights. Chappals (Hindi for flip flops) are the norm in many places. In the factory I use for my line virtue + vice I work barefoot, that's right I use the bathroom without shoes too. Business meeting with suppliers; no shoes in the office. When I visit the print houses and dye houses, I go in my flip flops (check out my video to see me in all my flip flop glory). Everyone in rural and even urban India wears sandals it’s just what people do. Their choice of shoe is not a clue to the state of factory conditions, it is a reflection of culture.
No regulations, no safety precautions, and general chaos
Yes, yes, and yes.
India is a place with tons of laws and a very conservative religious population, but it’s also the wild west where anything goes. It’s everything and nothing at once. Most people initial reaction to India while visiting for the first time is, this would never happen in America.
Anything can seem crazy if you don’t know what you're looking at. When I looked around the all white and affluent audience I realized most of the people there didn’t know what hard labor in a factory setting looked like. They probably would have had the same emotional response to a film made just through the tunnel in one of New Jersey's many factories…
*** Again, I hope my video and this article can help to clear up any confusion about what exactly was happening.
So, while there are limited regulations, what seemed like no safety regarding chemical handling, exposure, and waste, and the conditions looked inhumane; it all just looked pretty standard to me. No one was in immediate grave danger. That's what print houses and dye houses look like in India.
But then again, my housekeeper also burns all of our trash in a giant open fire in our backyard once a week, how the house hasn’t burned down yet I still don’t know.
My point is, there is a different level of danger and risk in India. If you still don't believe me, this is what everyday traffic looks like, now that's chaos.
Should there be more regulations and safety precautions, definitely. Do the workers want them? That is hard to say, I am not sure. Let’s look at the case for motor bike helmets, in most states helmets are legally required. 141,000 people die each year on the road in India. But, no one wears a helmet. If they have helmets they keep their helmets on the sides of their bikes or by their feet on scooters until they see a cop, then pretend to be wearing it. Could this potentially be the case if safety procedure were introduced into factories? Maybe.
While there is no question, in my mind, that education and safety should be introduced, we need to remember there are bigger cultural factors at play. Like, what is the norm, not just in this line of work but, in all threads of life. Changes are happening, people are recycling instead of burning, more helmets are being worn, and factories are becoming safer, but it is a slow process and one that is not unique to manufacturing alone.
12-hour shifts, without breaks
Let’s start with the positives. They weren’t locked in the factory and held prisoner against their will for the entire shift like the Rana Plaza factory collapse, so that’s a good thing. It also seemed to me like they were able to take breaks. There were multiple shots of workers sleeping in piles of fabric and on the floor. To me, based on what I have seen, this means they were on break. No, they don’t live in the factories. It is common to see people plop down and sleep just about anywhere when they have a short break, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. I’m no stranger to a nap or two on the factory floor when the heat and jet lag really set in. Here is a photo of me relaxing under a truck that was going to transport a shipping container full of clothes to the port.
12 hour shifts are long. I interned in a wash house in NY. They had me doing everything you saw in the movie and more. Those days were the hardest and longest of my life, when they were overall I could do was go home and sleep. But, from those seemingly never-ending days, I took away a lesson that has shaped my career. It is to think about the people doing the work. Too often I see bosses, sitting behind desks, unaware of how things are done, belting orders and dolling threats. Never considering what their unrealistic deadlines and cost cuts mean to the people they have never seen or met. Maybe if these big shots spent a day in factory workers shoes, and they saw what it was like, real change could happen.
From the way the workers were speaking it sounded like they were being paid by shift and not hourly. I think that if they were paid hourly some people would actually be interested in the overtime. Me personally, I could never do it, 8 hours had me beat, but I also don't have a family to feed. People leave their homes and travel across the country to get work, so it would make sense that some people would want to work as much as they physically could while they were away before returning home. I think the main argument here is not so much how many hours of work are allowed (some people might want more if they are paid well), but that they should be paid fairly and overtime should be an option, not a requirement just to receive a base salary.
More on wages
To me, one of the most enraging moments of the film was the owner saying that the workers should not be paid more, because then they won’t work and will waste their extra money away. Let’s get something straight. These people are living in extreme poverty, in densely populated areas, without running water, waste treatment, and sometimes not enough food to go around. What would they do with the extra money, I don’t know guy, maybe live in a place where they have a fucking toilet so they don’t have to go outside in the gutter in the front of their house (I use the term house here liberally, most people in the states would not consider what they live in a house), or eat something besides bhaji and dal? There is no question these people are underpaid.
At one point a worker says he is not being exploited because he is there on his own free will. But, he is being exploited. The factory owners know that he needs the money and will work for anything, because a low paying job is better than no job at all, they do not have to give them a fair wage. And in India there is no shortage of labor, if you won't work for the rate, someone else will. To me, and I think most of us, that is exploitation. It’s not like the factory owners aren’t turning a profit, some of these guys are among the richest in India.
So what can we do…
The part that really got me was the group of workers saying. What are you going to do now? You come see our problems, and leave. Why won’t you help us? Well Rahul, besides spreading awareness through your film, what have you been doing? If you do not affect action you are no better than the sorority girls that go to Africa with the sole purpose to take a new Facebook profile photo with a black orphan.
Rahul, you did it. You have our attention, we all want to help. But, what do we do? Where is the direction for the future? Without it, the film just seems like a self-indulgent dive into the world of poor people, something to talk about over beers and make us sound more interesting and worldly.
Encourage people to buy their clothes from factories that pay a fair wage, the more people that want those types of products the more fair work there will be in these countries because fair wage factories need orders to stay open, and the more orders they have the more people they can hire.
Some little things you might have missed
The flood scene is just monsoon. It’s totally normal. It rains every day for about 1/2 the year, then the other 1/2 the year it is dry. And when it rains, it floods. But, life carries on.
This photo was taken from one of my fabric mill suppliers homes during monsoon flooding. Just another day at the office in Ahmedabad.
What was happening with the kids and the garbage? The kids were looking for bits of scrap metal to sell for money. Why though? I am not quite sure. To me, this scene looked staged. They were far too clean, their hair brushed, and their clothes were much too nice for them to be street beggars. But, hypothetically yes, if they were beggars they could have made some money selling the scrap metal. This is what begging children look like.
How does everything work, what were all those machines actually doing?
My friends final thoughts were, what exactly was going on? How does everything work? And to answer that I made a short video with some of my own footage. It’s not as fancy as Machines, I’m not a filmmaker, all I had was my iphone. But, if you're interested on what it was you were seeing, check it out.