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The Uncivil Servant: Beauty, Despair, and Globalization

Mitchell Abidor
August 8, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Machines, by Rahul Jain, a film opening at Film Forum in New York, August 9.

RAHUL JAIN’S documentary Machines, shot in a fabric factory in the southern India state of Gujarat, is a film of beauty and great despair, a portrait of globalism and the grinding brutality of the overseas factories that provide the clothing we wear, the goods we use.

Shot largely inside the factory, we, like the workers there, are assaulted throughout the film by the ceaseless din of the machinery, the poor lighting, the flooding during rains. Jain was able to take from the workplace striking imagery, but he never falls into facile aestheticizing of the horrid. Shot in color, the film is largely somber, the only bursts of brightness -- the stunning fabrics produced by the workers.

The despair invoked by the film is on many levels. There is, most obviously, the conditions under which the workers labor: the general lack of protective equipment as they dig their bare hands into machinery to empty it of muck and traverse the factory in flip-flops, surrounded on all sides by heavy machinery, bolts of cloth, and barrels and crates, which they move with the strength of their backs. Adolescent workers fall asleep at their work posts, exhausted by the twelve-hour shifts and the fact that many of them work two or three of them in a row. Groups of workers are seen sleeping during one of the rare down moments when the factory isn’t active: one worker explains that he works a twelve-hour shift, naps for an hour, then works another twelve-hour shift . . .

Perhaps a deeper despair is the no-exit quality of these workers’ lives. Many spend a substantial sum traveling to Gujarat from other states of India where no jobs are available, so they have invested 1,000 rupees before they even work a minute or earn their $3 a day. Although one worker explains that, were the workers to band together, they could cut their shifts to eight hours and improve their wages and working conditions, he adds, “They’re not united.” They earn their wages and leave the factory; union organizing is not the first of their concerns. When one organizer comes, we are told, he is killed by the bosses before he can effect change. A contractor, a veritable cartoon version of the boss as villain, speaks of how he can slap a worker who complains and have no fear that a complaint will be filed against him.

The workers explain that they earn their wages to send home to pay for their children’s educations, though the owner of the factory, another cartoon villain straight out of a Gropper cartoon, says they just spend their money on cigarettes, alcohol and other “rotten” things. Although Jain ends the film on a scene of angry workers voicing complaints to his camera, we know that nothing will change soon.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.