It was a childhood memory of time spent at his grandfather’s textile mill in Gujarat that inspired Indian film student Rahul Jain to focus on the rhythm of factory life for his first documentary.
Although Jain did not set out to make a political film, his award-winning feature “Machines” is attracting international attention for its depiction of the squalor and human suffering underpinning the global garment industry.
This month the documentary opened the Copenhagen Fashion Summit where heads of leading clothing brands, charities and policy makers met to discuss ethical and sustainable fashion.
“Machines” shows men and children working slave-like shifts for paltry wages in conditions where they are exposed to damaging levels of noise and intense heat.
“The workers were poor, sick and they coughed a lot. Many had a hearing problem,” said Jain, a student at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts.
The machine noise the workers are exposed to is like a soundtrack running throughout the film.
“Workers use headphones and play loud music to lock out the sound (of the machines), but that actually causes more damage,” Jain told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Los Angeles.
“Their lungs are damaged as they breathe fine silica dust, also very fine carbon particles.”
The 25-year-old director, who grew up in Delhi, spent nearly six months spread over three years filming inside a factory in the city of Surat, the capital of India’s textile industry, in the western state of Gujarat.
Workers told how they earned less than £2.31 for shifts of 12 hours or more.
“When I arrive at the gate for work, I feel like turning back right there,” says one child who puts in 12 hours every day.
But the boy says he won’t leave because he believes he is more likely to learn skills as a child than he would as an adult.
The film ends with workers asking Jain to take up their demand for eight-hour shifts.
Jain said that while “Machines” was never intended as a piece of activism, he hoped the government would take action to help the textile workers.
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers toil in Surat’s numerous weaving, dying and printing factories.
Fabrics manufactured in the city are exported around the world, ending up in everything from high street fashions to school uniforms.
“Machines” was filmed in a factory employing 1,500 workers, including children. The camera follows them as they go about their tasks. Some are seen napping on piles of fabric.
Workers interviewed in the film appeared wary of speaking about their lives. One told how he had travelled 990 miles to work at the factory, but said he was not exploited and did the work out of choice.
Jain said the factory jobs took a heavy physical toll with illnesses common and workers mostly quitting by the time they are 50.
He said a doctor made twice-weekly visits to the factory to give medicines including multi-vitamins and vitamin D shots to the workers.
“Machines”, which won an award for its cinematography at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is already on release in Britain and will premiere in India later this year.
Jain said screenings were being planned in the country’s most densely-populated factory towns.
“I hope deep down that (the film) is used to show the government what it does not wish to see,” he added.