10 Filmmakers to Watch in 2017: Rahul Jain

Rahul Jain makes our 10 to Watch in 2017 list with his documentary Machines.

Writers are told to write what they know, and director Rahul Jain took that sentiment to heart with his debut documentary Machines. An observant portrait of the workers and working conditions within a massive textile factory in Gujarat, India, Machines provides a glimpse into an imbalanced world that Jain was exposed to as a child.

Taking on this global topic, through a personal lens, came from a place of concern for Jain. His boyhood experiences and place of privilege in adulthood inspired him to return home and tell the story of that factory and its workers.

Machines has gone on to play at 10 international film festivals, and won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography at 2017’s Sundance Film Festival. Using natural light and a sympathetic eye Machines avoids the typical pitfalls of poverty-tourism cinema and instead takes ownership of the experience.

The Independent contacted Jain about his inspiration for Machines, his compassionate approach to working with subjects, and what he hopes viewers will take away from it. 

Rahul Jain

Rahul Jain

Deirdre Crimmins: Tell us about Machines, and what inspired your work on it? 

Rahul Jain: Machines came from being an undergraduate film student at California Institute of the Arts, and not having much to say in an environment where the faculty suggested all art is political. My mentor, Thom Andersen, used to say film students should be making work about what they know. Thus, I was convinced I needed to go to a factory I used to visit as a young boy.

DC: How did you fund your documentary? 

Jain: I used all my personal savings to fund the film until it was presentable at a Work-in-Progress Lab in Goa. That’s where I met my two co-producers, one from Finland and one from Germany, who were able to raise post-production funds for the film.

DC: How did you build awareness for this project? 

Jain: During its creation, I was quite intimidated whenever I thought about who might see the film. But all the packed festival screenings have been encouraging and make me feel like there’s a space for me to say what I’m thinking. I think the film’s aesthetic is such that cinephiles are spreading the word about it, not just for those who are politically aware, but those also feel that films have the potential to say something about the world within their own linguistic parameters. The film has been released theatrically and at festivals in many markets around the world and will be getting more releases in the near future.

DC: Tell us about the cinematography involved in your project. What kind of look were you going for? 

Jain: We used a Sony FS700 and Sony A7S2, and shot compressed images so we didn’t end up using a lot of memory for the hundreds of hours of footage we were to create. We used Zeiss ZF lens series and only used a 50mm and 28mm to build a visual language around the film. We wanted and only had the chance to use the natural light of the environment in this factory which was filled with horrific fluorescent lighting. The cinematographer, Rodrigo Trejo, was able to aestheticize this ugliness into a classically framed moving images.

Factory workers laying on top of clothes in the documentary Machines.

Young factory workers share a brief moment of rest between arduous tasks.

DC: What is your approach to working with subjects? Do you have an idea of your story before you begin? 

Jain: My approach was one of compassion, curiosity and friendship. I explained to all my subjects in the very beginning that I was here to stay for the duration of the filming, which was quite a while. I was able to tell my subjects exactly why I was making the film and followed up on my realization that intimacy is a two way street; if we expect it from someone, we must be willing to give it back.

I just had a cloud of feelings in my head that I felt the film needed to be like. I didn’t have an idea in exactitude. I come from the school of thought for filmmaking where one doesn’t write a nonfiction film beforehand, and finds the film on the editing table. All the plans I would make for the shooting were just there so they could be broken. And over time, chaos was allowed to take over.

DC: What do you see as the main goal of Machines? What inspired you to make it, and what are you hoping to accomplish with it? 

Jain: One doesn’t make a film like Machines out of academic or aesthetic intrigue only. Machines was my attempt to understand how art can be political. When you’re questioning from a young age about how the world can be the way it is, when you actually articulate in your own head and to others around you as a child “How can this bottle of wine be worth as much as the salary of the man who just drove us here?” and when nobody can give you satisfying answers to those simple questions, that is the kind of worldview that inspired the film. If we can learn to question the things in the everyday that most people consider to be normal, then art can be made.

I still don’t fully understand the implications of releasing a film like Machines in the outside world. My desire was to say something I had felt my whole life. Maybe I wasn’t questioning my privilege all the time, but there was guilt there that needed to be faced.

DC: What’s next for you? 

Jain: It was in May 2016 that I locked the film, despite all my reservations and ambitions for it. I had plenty of time to ruminate on the meaning of life before the film started its festival run. That gave me distance from it, and helped me realize that it’s time to move on to my next project. My fear, anxiety and determination are all motivating me to work on my next film, which is a meditation on the different kinds of pollution in New Delhi, the most densely populated and polluted city on Earth. I have wanted to make a statement about this my whole life and I feel now is the time.

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