The human cost

by Amar Patel in


Yesterday I went to the opening of the always thoughtful and provocative Frames of Representation (FoR). Now in its second year, the festival aims to support and generate dialogue around emerging practices in documentary cinema. This time round, the theme is "working". The organisers want to "explore the significance of work today and its social, political and cultural themes." It seemed apt, therefore, that the first film be called Machines, and transport viewers to a textile factory in Gujarat, India.

Here, people work in 12-hour shifts for about $3-4, many struggling to keep their eyes open despite all the humming and whirring around them. Their expressionless faces convey a mix of resignation and stoicism. As one worker says: "God gave us hands so we have to work." Another man has travelled more than 1,600km to work and denies that he is being exploited. That's because this is life and people just get on with it … until someone gives them a better option.   

First-time feature director Rahul Jain spent two months observing in the factory before beginning to shoot. In all, he and his cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva kept rolling for six months, patiently waiting for the right composition and for beauty to reveal itself amid all the drudgery and hardship. Occasionally you feel claustrophobic, at other times incarcerated within each frame.

Machines-documentary-worker

The film affects the viewer through hypnosis as the camera lingers on each stage of the manufacturing process. Vats of deep-hued colours are wrestled into position, fabric is cut and dyed, patterns are printed, material is guided through rollers by hand and body-like bundles are dumped into wheeled bins with a jarring thud. It must have been quite a task to whittle down the 600-plus hours of footage. However, there is a real light touch to the editing, which gives Machines its metronomic rhythm and sense of suspension in time.

Machines-Jain-documentary

Despite the constant motion in this film, it feels eerily calm throughout. Perhaps that is because the wheels keep turning in this place. Product is made but little appears to be resolved. As soon as one fabric is finished, it's on to the next one without fuss or fanfare. There is no obvious satisfaction in the craft and the film really captures that process of dehumanisation. The workers have themselves become machines.

Machines-documentary-still2

Voices are minimal in the film. In fact, it must be at least half an hour before we hear one of the workers speak. By that point, you are desperate for someone to "speak their truth" as Jain put it in the Q&A. This was a very personal film for the director, whose maternal grandfather owned a factory like this (in Surat). This world fascinated him, particularly his place in relation to it as someone of privilege. When the time came for the California Institute of Arts film student to find a subject for his mid-term, he started with the one place he knew he could get access. 

Jain went into this project with questions and came out with even more. The intention was never to analyse or find answers. It certainly wasn't to produce a piece of cause marketing or start an impact campaign as some members of the audience were calling for. His honesty as a filmmaker was refreshing, particularly when admitting that he made this film because he wanted to … and nothing more. As Jain explained, it's in our nature to seek quick answers to questions. In reality, "there is no black and white," as he put it, "just this long spectrum of grey."

After the sensory overload of the first half of the film, our call for reason is partially answered as a few more voices interject. The factory boss brags about how much more loyal and hungry his workers were a few years ago when they used to earn ten times less than they do now. Towards the end, we step outside and the filmmaker is met by crowds of curious people. A spokesperson asks Jain, "Do you want to save us? Then tell us what to do and we will.” Another simply takes comfort in the fact that we all leave this planet with nothing. Even the rich people.

Admittedly, "you can't expose the sun," as the director argued, particularly in an industry that's reportedly worth $40 billion and built on the backs of cheap labourers. However, I did walk away wanting more from this film than Sundance-winning cinematography and assuming the role of voyeur in Jain's inquiry. Did that mean a stronger narrative or point of view on the situation from Jain? Or was I desperate for action which could lead to better wages and working conditions? If it's the latter then it's down to all of us as accomplices of global capitalism and not the director of a documentary. 

He did tell us that he has funding to show the film for a couple of weeks in cinemas around the factory area so let's hope something positive comes from that.

Machines film will be released and distributed by Dogwoof from 19 May. It's definitely worth a look.



Amar Patel

Preview: Between the Lines/High Tech, Low Life

by Amar Patel in


Between the Lines, a three-day programme of talks, debates and films about documentaries, kicks off this Friday at the Rich Mix in London. A collaboration between the Frontline Club and Dochouse, this event explores the challenges facing filmmakers, investigative journalists and citizen reporters in the new media age. Themes include subjectivity vs objectivity, freedom of expression vs integrity of sources and authenticity vs creative interpretation. A host of respected figures will take part including Life in a Day director Kevin McDonald, Occupy Wall Street Livestreamer Tim Pool, Truthloader editor Dan Bell and head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, Dorothy Byrne.

Last year Sundance director Robert Redford told the BBC that documentaries had replaced newspapers as the media's main source of investigative journalism. Compare the falling public confidence in media ethics post-Leveson and Savile with the breakthrough international success of personal truths on film such as 5 Broken Cameras, Central Park Five and The House I Live In, and he may just be on to something. 

A documentary used to be niche viewing: either eye-opening discoveries while channel-flicking on the sofa – think moments with Attenborough – or esoteric VHS/DVD pass-arounds for curious culture vultures (La Chappelle's Rize, for instance). Over the past 15 years, these more informative features have become box office sensations: Bowling for Columbine, March of the Penguins, Enron, An Inconvenient Truth, Inside Job, Super Size Me, Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Man on Wire, Senna, The Imposter; the list is long, lucrative and littered with awards.

Then there is Rodriguez. When a film about a largely unknown musician from Detroit becomes an international success – from Letterman to Leno, BAFTA to Oscar – you know that something extraordinary is happening. Of course, some things never change. People like to hear passionate stories about other people, particularly the underdog. But there is also a growing demand for more depth and authenticity in the things that we choose to spend our time and money on.

Unquestionably, it is technology that has made us so receptive and eager to consume knowledge about the world we live in. We share much more of ourselves as well: mobile phones and digital cameras have democratised storytelling. The age-old corridors of power in mass media – TV, radio, press, government – are being eclipsed by social media and citizen reporters are only too eager to give their version of events.

We crave unmediated information and real-time news from the street. Power lobbies are being torn apart and everyone is accountable. Beyond simply being another form of news gathering, the documentary as a medium provides a way for these frontline journalists to generate awareness for their particular cause and to build a compelling case over time – something that newspapers rarely have the time to do.

Censorship is the great enemy of these truth tellers. So it's only fitting that one of the films being being shown on Thursday 28 February in the build up to Between the Lines is Steve Maing's High Tech, Low Life, an absorbing tale of two dissident bloggers in China, very different characters from two different generations, and yet united in their determination to breach "the Great Firewall", which threatens to shackle the world's largest population. 

Vegetable seller Zola is a restless, ambitious 27 year old, keen to make a name for himself as a reporter as he covers stories about houses being torn down, suspected murder and public acts of defiance. In one scene he argues with his expectant parents and proclaims that, "the individual comes first, not the country." As he builds his following, his persona – even making an appearance at the World Blogging Forum in Romania – you can tell that he craves the spotlight. But beneath the bravado there is a tacit acceptance of the danger that he puts himself in. 

An unusually pensive Zola manages to evade the authorities on his way to the World Blogging Forum in Romania

An unusually pensive Zola manages to evade the authorities on his way to the World Blogging Forum in Romania

Meanwhile, Tiger Temple, an activist in his late 50s, is a more meditative and low-key figure, committed to understanding China’s tumultuous history while reporting on the plight of farmers in the agricultural hinterland. He considers democracy to be education when dealing with the authorities and generously adds that "we're learning from each other". For him, China suffers from the same debilitating disease that took hold during Mao's dictatorship. "On the surface, things seem better," he explains, "but people still feel oppressed. Tricked by economic growth. Distracted. Complacent because they feel powerless. They ask: 'What am I supposed to do?'" 

Tiger Temple: "In the meantime I will do what I do best: ride my bike. And if I have any thoughts I will write them down and share them"

Tiger Temple: "In the meantime I will do what I do best: ride my bike. And if I have any thoughts I will write them down and share them"

Zola is less conciliatory. When he finally comes face to face with Tiger at a blogging conference he proclaims, "Being selfish is the first step to conquering the communist mindset." It's a fascinating moment. The viewer is never prompted to take sides but you wonder which approach is the right one for these times after Tiger is then unceremoniously driven out of Beijing while the party conference is held.

At the end of the film we are told that, "In 2012, after widespread social unrest and political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, the Chinese government created a new agency called the State Internet Information Body, to prevent disruptions to social stability." The government condemns such agitations as "acts of vanity" and warns that those seeking parallels with the events of the Middle East will "be sorely disappointed".

Unless the people speak out, that is. There is a place for both Zola and Tiger in this fight for democracy and it's going to take many more fearless citizens like them to bring change against a fiercely authoritarian government. Watch this film: it gives a timely reminder of the power and defiance of the human spirit.

And please do spare some time to visit Between the Lines. There are free screenings and events on Saturday…

'High tech, Low Life' will be shown at 7.15pm at Riverside Studios on Thursday 28 February. This screening will be preceded by 'Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei, a short film about China’s most famous dissident artist.



Amar Patel