Rahul Jain’s astonishing debut feature is a documentary with no voiceover, no text inserts and no musical score. Instead, the dizzying tale of a textile factory in India’s Gujarat region, and the workers who spend 12-hour shifts earning the equivalent of $3 a day there, is told through its ecosystem of machines. These steel contraptions are a dull, concrete grey, not the slick silver you might expect. They clunk and click and whirr, pleating seemingly endless waterfalls of translucent fabric, slicing and sheeting the material.
It’s hypnotic, Jain’s camera smooth but free as it travels the factory’s bowels and observes its balletic processes. Soon, though, Jain reminds us that the grace and dexterity of human hands is needed to operate the factory apparatus, to ensure dye doesn’t drip and fabric doesn’t catch. Men and boys methodically stir enormous vats of toxic chemicals (no gloves or masks) and hand-whisk orange dye with the precision of pastry chefs. “God gave us hands, so we have to work,” explains one of the film’s many unnamed workers.
The film’s gliding, forward-moving form proves a chilling juxtaposition with the stasis of the workers and their stagnant socioeconomic status. This is explicitly political film-making, a direct call for unionisation, better pay and reasonable hours rather than a pitying ethnography, even allowing the workers to question Jain’s ability to intervene and help them escape. He avoids didacticism by letting his subjects speak for themselves and refusing to pull away when their bleak fatalism becomes uncomfortable to witness. “There are no other options,” a worker tells Jain. “Poverty is harassment. There is no cure.” The worker also insists that it is not exploitation. The inclusion of a villainous, pencil-pushing fat cat boss suggests otherwise.