Saturday, July 28, 2018

224. Indian director Rahul Jain’s debut, long-documentary film “Machines” (2016): Hard-hitting and real perspective of modern India

India produces some of the world’s most attractive textiles that contribute to making lives in India and elsewhere colourful and comfortable-- whether it be the clothes one wears or the cloth-based furnishings in one’s dwellings. Few realize the oppressive conditions in which textile printing workers in India toil to make the lives of billions of diverse people across the world happy and content. Machines and human beings together contribute to those lovely printed textiles. The contribution of human beings in the process is rarely in the limelight. Toiling within dingy factories, these human beings gradually become dehumanized and mechanical in their actions in their sheer desperation to earn a regular income to keep themselves afloat above the abject line of hunger and poverty. They become machines not out of choice but more from a lack of choice.

Film director Rahul Jain’s honest perspective is not focussed on the machines that manufacture and print the textiles but more on the faceless tens of thousands of workers, exploited and dehumanized to work like machines for extended work hours, deprived of basic rights of hygiene, medical safety, statutory limitations of working hours and legal age and, of course, fair compensation for their time and toil. The film Machines underscores the no-win situation of migrant workers within India caught between poverty and survival, in the clutches of heartless contractors and factory owners, who spin profits for themselves sitting in contrasting distant cosy comfort.

Cinematography ( Rodrigo Villanueva) picked up two
important international awards

Machines has won several accolades worldwide.  Apart from winning the Golden Eye award at the Zurich Film Festival in 2017 for the Best International Documentary Film, it picked up the cinematography award at the Sundance film festival, the Silver Gateway award at the Mumbai film festival, the best cinematography award of the International Documentary Association and three awards/prizes at the Thessaloniki documentary festival.   What is it that makes Machines tick?

Diegetic sound recorded and mixed by the Indo-German crew
is laudable

Machines could have been made in diverse ways.  Mr Jain could have opted to make a film contrasting machines and human beings with music matching the visuals on the lines of the Dutch maestro Bert Haanstra’s 11-minute Oscar-winning wordless sublime film Glass (1958) on the Dutch glass factories. Jain’s film consciously does not use music—his attempt was not to capture the beauty, but the sweat and grime of the workers much in contrast with the workers in Europe. Machines could have been made without words to mirror the French director Louis Malle’s Humain, Trop Humain (Human, all too human) (1974), which is roughly the same length as Machines. That French film looked at the Citroen automobile factories in France and compared the human workers with the machines on the assembly line without words spoken except for brief pitches of the sales staff selling the cars.  There are commonalities between Jain’s and Malle’s film: same length, human workers who appear and work like machines, and no music. The big difference in Machines compared to the two European filmmakers is that the punch of the Indian film comes from the honest spoken lines of the workers captured by the camera replacing the silence of the European works. Malle probably thought that he conveyed a lot by choosing as the title of his film to be same as Nietzche’s last book which appeared to revise all his earlier written works. But little did Malle realize that all filmgoers need not be as well read as he was to make the bigger connection beyond what was obvious within the film’s visuals and sounds of the factory.

Spoken words matter in the film

Words when spoken in Machines sock you on the jaw. The workers have fled their villages because incomes from crops are undependable compared to grimy, sleep-deprived, and low-paid work that in sharp contrast can be depended on as steady income.   It is steady as long as you don’t upset the apple cart by protesting the raw deal meted out by the contractors and the factory owners.
The few spoken words are stronger than the visuals. The workers state they have never seen the factory’s owners—but the owners watch them on closed circuit TV in comfortable offices.  The workers can’t afford to buy cigarettes and instead ingest the cheaper semi-dry mix of raw tobacco and slaked lime locally called khaini while the factory owner ironically justifies the low wages as being more than double of what it was 10 years before, especially when workers were comparatively more committed to their work than today, casting a blind eye to the rising costs of living. (Khaini is proven to be injurious to health as much as it is to work with chemicals and dyes without adequate physical protection.) Equally disturbing is the logic of a teenage boy (it is illegal for children to work in factories in India) who claims that working at his age would develop him into a superior and sharper worker when he grows up compared to others who didn’t have his experience.  Or of another boy who reaches the gates of the factory each day and wishes soon after entering it that he could run out of the factory from another gate but chooses not to. More disturbing are the statements of a worker that any potential unionist seeking better compensation and hygienic conditions would be knocked off, while fearfully looking over his shoulder if someone heard him make that statement.

A factory worker reminiscent of a
Thomas Hardy novel

The critical decision that goes in the favour of Machines is that the spoken words are not preceded by questions.  Questions don’t matter.  Those have to be imagined.  When the workers do ask inconvenient questions of the filmmakers, the answers too are not heard.  The film as the finished product is the answer.  The brief silence before the end credits is loud and punchy.

After hard labour, a brief nap in the factory

The crucial bit beyond making of the film was revealed by the young talented director—the film having won all the global awards is yet to be widely seen within India because it is awaiting a Censor Certificate from the Government.  Few can deal with truth, fewer with injustice. Economic growth for those who matter is the mantra of the day. If the film is indeed seen widely, the question asked by the workers at the end of the film would be answered. Nietzsche could be smiling in his grave.

P.S. Director Rahul Jain, who grew up near a family owned small textile mill in India  and studied in the US will soon be teaching at a prominent US University and hopefully continue to make hard hitting films. Terrence Malick used to teach at MIT. Both wear similar hats.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

223. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 12th feature film “Sandome no satsujin” (The Third Murder) (2017): An amazing script and film less about a murder but more about why murders are committed and what is truth, presented by re-working the Rashomon principle.

ore than half a century ago the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa made a classic film Rashomon (1950) about a samurai’s death and the rape of the samurai’s wife.  Different versions of what transpired are narrated by different characters. Each version made the viewer ponder over which version indeed was the truth and why each personality concocted their own twisted perspective of the truth. Many filmgoers would be convinced the tale belonged to director Kurosawa but Kurosawa had merely adapted a tale written by the “father of the Japanese short story”—Ryunosuke Akutagawa for the screen, with considerable help from Kurosawa’s trusted scriptwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who contributed significantly to six of Kurosawa’s most famous works, including the original story of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952).

Nearly seven decades later, another Japanese director gives us a more complex film on similar lines to unravel the truth about a killing—with a major difference.  Unlike Kurosawa’s famous film that stood on the shoulders of a famous literary work, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder is based on Kore-eda’s own original tale and an evolved concept of filming.  The basic difference between the two outstanding Japanese directors is just that Kore-eda does not require the help of another co-scriptwriter and (with one exception) someone else’s story to make a film. He writes, edits, and even sometimes produces his own films—akin to the credentials of the late Italian director Ermanno Olmi, as in the case of his awesome The Tree of Wooden Clogs.

There are aspects of The Third Murder that can take a cinephile by surprise. First, the film shows a murder upfront. The viewer is shown the murderer and the victim.  Everything seems to be in place. The murderer is arrested and has apparently confessed to the crime, his third “murder.” A death sentence appears to be inevitable  As the film progresses, the motive, the event, and the players involved in the crime become fuzzy and less clear-cut as compared to the early part of the film. Why does the director/writer do that? Kore-eda reverses the conventional accepted narrative--the late Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky did achieve something similar in The Aura (2005).

The defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) (left)
meets his client Misumi (Koji Yakusho) (right) in prison
separated by glass

Some key lines spoken in the film are all laden with food for thought for any astute viewer of The Third Murder:
  1.    Some people in this world should never have been born”—stated by the ‘murderer’ Misumi  (Koji Yakusho)
  2.     Our legal strategy is the truth”—stated by the idealistic defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) and son of the very judge who had spared Misumi from a death sentence taking into account the murderer’s social and economic background and instead sent him to 30 years in prison
  3.    I am the one who should get judged”—stated by the murdered man’s daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), school-girl, sexually molested by her father, who had gotten rich by intentionally mis-labelling the food product he sold
  4.   People’s lives get decided for them” —stated by the ‘murderer’ Misumi       
  5.  “He is an empty vessel”—lawyer Shigemori’s father and former judge view of the ‘murderer’ Misumi “Are you just a vessel?” —asked by lawyer Shigemori to his client the ‘murderer’ Misumi as his appreciation for Misumi grows, “What is a vessel?” –rhetorical question from the ‘murderer’ Misumi

Sakie (the murdered man's daughter) (Suzu Hiroze) notices the fake labelling
on her father's products

Let’s re-examine the above five quotes from the film.

Some people in this world should never have been born.” That statement could easily be applicable for a triple murderer.  In The Third Murder, the line is spoken by the murderer. He is referring to other types of low-life more despicable than murderers—fathers who rape their daughters, loan-sharks who lend money to the needy, women who pay money to have their husbands eliminated and live off the insurance money, businessmen who make money by intentionally mislabelling the product. But in case one thinks a murderer is indeed the more despicable person who should not have been born—do we study why the murder has happened? Was the murderer dispensing justice when there was none else to do so in the present society? Is the legal system perpetrating the third murder of the ‘murderer’ Misumi by sentencing him to death?  Or is Misumi or any economically deprived individual wishing he was never born in an unjust world where he cannot look after his own daughter for 30 years while he was incarcerated?

Our legal strategy is the truth.” The defence lawyer Shigemori believes that he can win cases by uncovering and presenting the truth. The film begins with Shigemori wanting to save his client from a death sentence by uncovering the truth. He first persuades his client to write a letter of apology to his victim’s family, which he does. Soon it is found out that the victim’s wife paid the murderer a large sum of money via a bank transfer in an incriminating email. Did Misumi kill for money? Did Misumi kill to avenge the violation of his victim’s daughter, who was as handicapped as his own? Was it murder for theft or a theft after murder? Was there someone else physically present during the murder? Any of these scenarios could save Misumi from the inevitable death penalty. He tells his lawyer that he is not guilty but refuses to say that in court as he possibly wants to protect his victim’s daughter. Is Misumi accepting a death sentence to protect someone?

Lawyer and client, after the verdict

I am the one who should get judged.” That’s a statement from the victim’s daughter, Sakie, an individual viewed by all as an indirect victim. Kore-eda even provides shots of blood on her face. The role of Sakie and her mother, remain open-ended and never fully revealed. As cinema evolves there is less spoon feeding of the viewer--the viewer has to join the dots.

The site of the opening murder sequence appears to be marked
by a visual cross marking where the charred murdered body lay 

The birds killed by Misumi are metaphorically
buried with a cross

People’s lives get decided for them.”  Kore-eda introduces the birds and the empty birdcage for metaphoric purpose.  Misumi had a lot of birds in his birdcage within his rented flat taken after his release from prison.  He killed all of them except one and buried the dead ones in a grave marked with a cross. He gave freedom to one bird and was hoping that the released bird would return to his cell window. Kore-eda appears to be indirectly questioning the existence of the theological “free will.”

Misumi hopes that the bird he released will return to his 
outstretched palm stuck out of  his prison window to eat the grains he is offering 

The obvious and enigmatic visual cross marks the position of the lawyer on the road
looking upwards--there is not an iota of religious matter spoken in the entire film

“Are you just a vessel?” The good defence lawyer is shaken by the client’s statements and actions. His client is gifted.  By bringing their palms together, with thick glass separating them, Misumi can find out that his lawyer has a daughter with whom he has not met.  The lawyer realizes that his client has much that deserves respect rather face execution.  Is he a vessel to teach us higher values than legal ones? Kore-eda’s film suggests many profound ideas without appearing to be ham-handed.

The lawyer Shigemuri meets up with his daughter,
whom he has neglected, after separating from his wife,
 in a restaurant

The Third Murder is an incredibly well-crafted tale seeking to divulge the truth but the viewer gets to realize how fuzzy and complicated the truth is—in a modern Rashomon twist. Kore-eda’s writing craft may be missed by many casual viewers.  The “murderer” Misumi has a daughter with a bad leg who he could not take care of during the 30 years he spent in jail. The murdered man also has a daughter with a bad leg. Finally, the defence lawyer Shigemori also has a daughter (with no deformities) but also lacking a caring father, as he is more interested in his career than in her after he has separated from her mother.  The visuals of  interaction between the prisoner and lawyer that are edited delectably and the music add to the quality of the strong screenplay, acting, and direction. Fascinating stuff, Mr Kore-eda! One of best Japanese films in recent years. 

P.S. The two films referred to within the above review--Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and Bielinsky's The Aura (2005)--have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The film The Third Murder won six awards at the Japanese Academy in 2018, including awards for the best film, the best direction, the best screenplay and the best editing. The Third Murder is now included among the author's top 100 films ever made and the author's 15 most important films of the 21st century.