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Filming the factory

Trisha Gupta | Updated on January 20, 2018
The wheels are coming off: A still from Rahul Roy’s The Factory

The wheels are coming off: A still from Rahul Roy’s The Factory

Trisha Gupta

Trisha Gupta

Two engrossing documentaries — a German film from 1995 and an Indian one from 2015 — make for a bleak but thoughtful engagement with the figure of the factory worker

Harun Farocki’s 1995 film Workers Leaving the Factory is named for that originary moment of cinema from 1895, of men and women leaving the Lumière factory in Lyons. The original footage was shot by the Lumière brothers to demonstrate that cinema could capture movement. But Farocki, in his characteristic style, entered into a sustained engagement with the subject. After a year-long effort to track as many variants as he could of this theme — workers leaving their workplace — he produced an essayistic assemblage of archival footage that is both haunting and playful.

One of the first things Farocki’s film does is to show us several clips of workers coming out of factories. In almost all, the speed with which they emerge is extraordinary. Often they are actually running, as if they would rather be anywhere other than the factory.

The strike features occasionally. In an American film by DW Griffith, the confrontation between workers and capitalists assumes the face of civil war. An excerpt from a Soviet film contains an exchange in song, a rhythmic face-off between striking workers and the factory supervisor that’s almost gentle by contrast: “You’ve got us the piece of bread, but where is the whole loaf?”

Farocki points out that the moment when workers are leaving the factory produces, as at no other time, the feeling of a multitude: because of the simultaneity of their dismissal, and the compression produced by the exits. The film moves between images that suggest the oppressive squeezing of workers, and the potential power of their collectivity.

“Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras,” says the voice-over in Workers Leaving the Factory. The technology of film has taken its place on the side of capital.

“Most narrative films begin after work is over,” the voice-over continues in this vein. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories.”

Farocki’s film (free to watch on Vimeo) was recently shown at Delhi’s Max Mueller Bhavan alongside a recent Indian documentary called The Factory, directed by the filmmaker Rahul Roy. The juxtaposition threw up interesting conjunctions, not least the fact that Roy never got to shoot inside the factory of his title.

The reason for this is not complicated. Roy’s film is a meticulously researched, disturbing account of the Maruti Suzuki case, in which 147 workers from the automobile company’s factory in Manesar, Haryana, were arrested and imprisoned without bail for several years, on charges that include arson and the murder of a human resources manager called Avanish Kumar Dev. Thirty-six are still in jail.

The Factory is told entirely through the eyes of workers. The many dismissed workers Roy speaks to suggest a grave miscarriage of justice by the Maruti establishment, aided by the full might of the state: public prosecutor KPS Tulsi was paid ₹5.5 crore for this one case. The workers say that Dev’s death was caused by hired bouncers. It was, they believe, a conspiracy to do away with the one member of management who had helped them organise, while simultaneously framing them and demonising the union.

Harun Farocki’s film contains footage of a strike by English car workers in 1956. “The workers’ disputes are far less violent than those carried out in the name of the workers,” says the voice-over.

Roy started shooting a year after the incident, on July 18, 2013. He presents, without comment, the disproportionate increases in salaries that framed the growing divide between labour and management. In 2007 a senior permanent worker at the Maruti factory earned ₹2.8 lakh annually. By 2013, he earns ₹3 lakh. Meanwhile, in 2007, the CEO earned ₹47.3 lakh. By 2010, he earned ₹2.45 crore.

The film goes on to paint a depressing picture, of a management increasingly distant from workers, while intent on applying the greatest possible pressure on them.

Not allowed to film inside the factory, Roy melds archival footage and conversations with fired workers to recreate life on a production floor where a new car was readied every 45 seconds.

Every group of workers in an automated assembly line is usually provided with one reliever, a worker who can take over if another worker needs to go to the toilet or drink water or simply take a few minutes’ break.

If earlier there was one ‘reliever’ for every 10 men, at Maruti it became one for every 25. Often if a worker was absent, the reliever might be made to take his place, leaving the group without a reliever.

A worker’s absence was penalised with harsh pay cuts — the minimum cut for one day was ₹2,000, which was a fourth of a worker’s monthly variable pay. If a man missed four days, he would lose his entire variable pay, which was half his salary.

Lunch breaks and even toilet breaks were strictly policed. Mistakes on this punishing assembly line resulted in not just verbal ticking-off and written complaints, but also humiliating physical punishments.

“It is a common characteristic of all capitalist production...” wrote Marx, “that the worker does not make use of the working conditions. The working conditions make use of the worker, but it takes machinery to give this reversal a technically concrete form.” The rhythm of production on a conveyor belt, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, means that the article being worked on comes into the worker’s range of action without his volition, and moves away from him just as arbitrarily. In working with machines (wrote Benjamin), workers learn to coordinate “their own movements with the uniformly constant movements of an automaton.”

“Workers changing shift in the film Metropolis. Uniform dress and equal step,” announces the voice-over in Harun Farocki’s film, as we watch that classic 1927 visual of bodies marching in unison through the hellish corridors of Fritz Lang’s imagined dystopia. Heads drooping, movements robotically coordinated but painfully slow: these are human beings with their humanity leached out of them.

If this vision of the future has not come to pass, it seems to me, it has not been for lack of trying.

Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi; @chhotahazri

Published on April 08, 2016

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