Sundance Cinematography Winner 'Machines': 'Time is the Primary Unit of Cinema'
"Create conditions where more randomness and chaos can take over."
When Rahul Jain set out to make a documentary inside a textile factory located in the Sachin region of his native India, he thought it was an environment he understood. However, what he remembered as a child in his grandfather's Surat factory turned out to be very different from what he experienced filming inside one as a grown man.
Jain's feature documentary Machines, which recently garnered the Sundance Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography, operates with an intense rhythm and visual depth, creating an existential exploration of reality, class, and industrialization.
Jain sat down with No Film School at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to talk about his shooting strategies, working through moments of utter panic, and the multi-dimensional layers of reality.
"I was vomiting right before the scene because I was so nervous."
No Film School: Your grandfather had a factory that you spent time in as a kid. How did you first come across the factory you shot in for this the film?
Rahul Jain: I started asking a lot of family members if they knew anybody with a factory. I knew somebody would know someone, and it turned out they did.
When you're a young filmmaker, I guess you think about making work about what you might know, in comparison with what you don't. For two years, my first years at school, I just couldn't do anything. I realized it was because I wasn't in an environment that I identified with. The idea to work in the factory came from the wish to do something that [I knew]. But it was totally not true. It turns out I didn't have a good idea of it; I just thought I did.
NFS: So what changed in your understanding of the factory environment throughout the process of making this film?
Jain: I made the film almost to understand my curiosities and to figure out the things that I grew up confused about. By the end of the film's shooting and editing, I feel that I know this even less.
Reality is not 50/50 or black and white. Usually, we pursue objectives and goals to figure things out. I was trying to understand something, learn about something that was really on the other side. Maybe it was good for the whole process of the film, but I'm more confused. Instead, I'm more aware of the depth of reality.
"With editing, you have to liquidate your perception of time."
NFS: What conversations did you and DP Rodrigo Villanueva have about how you wanted to shoot inside the factory?
Jain: There were many shooting strategies that we worked with over time. We also had a learning curve about what kind of visual language to adapt for the film. There were many experiments. I am more of a frenetic person, and my energy was going everywhere when we would start shooting. Rodrigo had the calm and patience to go, "Dude, this is your relative's factory. You can do whatever you want. Just calm down. Just take it easy. Let's film everything properly." For [my part], I was thinking, "Non-fiction is always happening around me. I'm missing everything! I'm missing these gems!"
We stuck to two focal lenses primarily: 50 and 28. We used other lenses, but I didn't end up using those images. When you use a similar focal lens, the visual experience in your mind doesn't get too bogged down by the changes of the language that come with cuts between different focal lenses.
NFS: How did you establish yourself inside the factory? How big was your crew?
Jain: It was just my cinematographer, Rodrigo, and I. I'll start with the camera. It's a huge camera, and people were very much in shock at the beginning. "What is this device?" But for the first two months, we were in the factory without a camera. We were just observing, taking notes, talking to people.
But in terms of shooting, once we brought in the camera, it took a long time. You habituate them to the presence of the camera. Over time, we conveyed to them that we're doing something without interrupting what they were doing. We said we were very curious. We're not just here to just mess around.
"Nobody in that socio-economic class has been filmed before. They've never been photographed."
[Nobody] in that socio-economic class has been filmed before. They've never been photographed. They've never been propelled to a place where somebody would care about making representations of them. For them, it's just all new. They're coming up to me and saying, "Who's the hero in this movie? Who's the villain in this movie?" I say, "You're the heroes. I'm the villain." It took a while for me to make them understand that this is not a normal movie. Rather, I'm just trying to understand reality, almost like a quest.
It took a long time to establish intimacy with the informants. There were over 500 interviews that we [did]. We used about seven.
NFS: How did you gain the trust of the factory workers who spoke to you?
Jain: When you expect intimacy, you must also be ready to give it. Otherwise, if it's not a two-way exchange, it doesn't really happen. I started to explain why I'm here, what I'm trying to do—reveal all my curiosities and not hold back anything. Once I started doing this—in the beginning of speeches or my introductions—it started working.
"I would be talking with someone, and then they would ask me, 'How much is this camera?' That really messed me up."
It's still quite difficult to get to that place, because I am on the other side, and they know this. I would be talking with someone, and then they would ask me, "How much is this camera?" That really messed me up. It’s just a micro-moment, but many moments like that made me realize who I am in terms of our dynamic. I could never really give an honest answer to questions like that. They would ask me, "Hey, can we work for you? We don't want to work here. Can we work for you? We'll do anything you say. We'll even kill for you."
The experiences of filming don't leave you once you're out. You can be objective while you're behind the camera, but when you're editing, you need to really empathize, to understand what it means in the whole equation of the film. When you're editing, it affects you more. For me, editing was much more depressing than the shooting. With editing, you have to liquidate your perception of time. It's a very slow process.
NFS: There’s one scene in particular that is etched in my mind: the workers are gathered around the camera. It pans 360 degrees as they demanding answers to a series of questions: "Are you getting our story, and then you'll just leave?” What was going on when you were shooting that moment?
Jain: I went to the factory four different times for two months each. By the third time, one day we just kept the camera outside. We were shooting, and I went away for a second. When I came back, there was a huge circle around the camera because it was around 8:30 AM when the shifts change. I was a bit stupefied at the circle of people, and I was wondering, how do I get my camera back? Rodrigo was like, "Dude, go talk. Go." I was like, "Shit, yes. Okay."
Jain: People were questioning me aggressively. But we shot something. It looked beautiful. This one particular image that I have is just of the camera circling and filming people. It was very emotional. And filming emotionally means close-ups.
Last time I was there, I went in with a strategy to repeat this. Throughout the whole film, I stay inside the chambers of the factory. This is the only time I went into an open environment and was not protected. I was really afraid to do it; I was vomiting right before the scene because I was so nervous. I was in the car, hyperventilating, but then thought, "Okay, I have to go out and do this because I'm losing this precious time." We just kept the camera on the street, and within 20 minutes it was packed. There was a circle. I started accusing the whole circle of poverty. I started blaming them for their own poverty and giving the whole logic of the Right. Basically, things I had heard my whole life growing up.
"Filmmakers need to talk about time as the primary unit of cinema."
NFS: Logic used by the boss of the factory, who is featured in one part of the film criticizing workers for becoming lazy when they get higher wages.
Jain: Exactly. So when I started with these accusations, I expected to be punched or slapped by somebody. But everybody got really involved. It heated up their defense of themselves for why they are the way they are. I was very fascinated by the whole circle, the changing faces, the genuine connection. A lot of it felt like a film to me because I was trying to achieve this feeling of everybody being everybody. Not just one person, but representing everyone.
Jain: The circle went on for three hours. I edited myself out of it systematically. When I get asked, "What are you going to do?" Or even things like, "Why are you actually here? Tell us. Don't lie. Why are you actually here?" I offered some good articulate answers to this, but I had to cut them because throughout the film I wasn't revealing my position. I kept thinking that perhaps by not really showing my position, I might become visible, and in my opinion, I do. You end up being there by not being there.
NFS: What would be your best piece of advice to other filmmakers based on your experience making Machines?
Jain: I don't know if this is advice to other filmmakers, but I can give advice to myself in the past.
NFS: What would you tell yourself?
Jain: I would say have faith in the things that first intrigued you about what you are doing. I romanticize a lot of things about the process, but please look at it also from a practical viewpoint. I didn't have a producer for the longest time.
In terms of non-fiction, be open to accidents more. Actually, create conditions where more randomness and chaos can take over. It's a real dark minefield, but for me, it gave the best results. Have a plan, but be open to changing it, because reality is not objective. It's relative. If we can interpret the many multi-dimensional layers of this cake, then you hope that you're getting closer to knowing.
One last thing: Let painters talk about paint, and musicians talk about guitars or sound. I think filmmakers need to talk about time as the primary unit of cinema. We need to think about how we experience time in a variety of different ways. When you're old, time passes so fast. When I was young, it was so slow. I wish filmmakers were thinking more about time.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.