Rahul Jain is an engineering student who accidentally found himself at a filmmaking course at the California Institute of the Arts when he began failing at calculus. The first film he made in school was a documentary on a textile mill in Gujarat - one that he had visited as an infant. As a child, the sight of machines in motion intrigued him. More recently as a filmmaker he found himself drawn to the narratives of the migrant workers working at the factory. He’s been back to the factory a couple of times since 2013, sussing out as many narratives and images he could from that space.
This week, his film Machines (a German - Finland - India production) will be amongst 12 other international documentaries competing at the Sundance Film Festival. It's also the only Indian presence at the festival this year. Here, the New Delhi boy tells us about his journey as a filmmaker.
HOW A CHILDHOOD MEMORY BECAME A FILM
In 2013, I needed to show something in my school for my mid-terms and to be honest, I really hadn't done much. I was a slacker you could say. I was in California where I felt alienated. I was comfortable but I didn’t feel like I had something to say and if you don’t have something to say, you shouldn’t be making movies. There came a point where I had nothing to show for my time in school. Out of desperation of having to prove something not only to my teachers, but also to my parents, I went to this factory in Gujarat. I had known this place during my childhood (between 3-5 years of age) because of some distant familial connections. This was the only place I was curious about. For some reason, it was deeply imbedded in my cerebral memory. It wasn’t a tangible narrative, just a collection of feelings. What fascinated me were the machines. But when I went back there to film, it was the people that grabbed my attention. It was a weird switch in perspective.
SHOOTING IN THE SCORCHING HEAT OF GUJARAT
In 2013, I just went back to the factory in Gujarat for a week and shot free form - very random, chaotic shots. I gathered this material and took it back to school. I knew there was something there, but I was terrified of editing it. I showed it in a review class and one of the professors there, someone I really wanted to impress, instantly said, ‘This is not a short film. You got to go back.’ And this was the first time anyone had seen any work of mine in over two years.
We went in the month of June to shoot and our cameras kept turning off because it was so hot. Not only our cameras, but our brains, minds, all kept turning off. These workers were coming up to us and saying it’s so hot, please help us. After a while we took a break and went through our notes - a discussion of the things we saw. We went back again and this time it was totally legitimate. We went full conceptual and for a few weeks we were there working in the factory 24/7. We didn't have faith in ourselves but did in the story. The kind of interviews I was able to generate and the images we had- it was something. It was a very demanding journey. I was doing the sound as well, and my ears started bleeding at one point.
GETTING GLOBAL PRODUCERS ON BOARD
For two years I was working on the movie alone in my school and getting feedback. I was really depressed and feeling alone. I had made 35-40 renditions of the film. Somehow I felt like I needed feedback from Indians and my people. So by some miracle, I found out about the NFDC Film Bazaar online, and the curator Deepti D’Cunha saw something in this. She forced me to apply to the viewing room. I didn’t think the film was ready to show to people. They didn't give me any criticism, they were just bowled over. I got the prize for the best ‘work in progress’ film. After that one of the jurists from Finland said, ‘Hey we must work together on this’.
We started working together and had really good offers from great festivals around the world - everyone was stoked. Now that I had the money, I thought let me go back once more. I really wanted to feel like I had left no stone unturned.
THE FESTIVAL JOURNEY
We got invited to a couple of festivals but they weren’t giving me the competition spot. I swear it wasn’t my ego but my love of cinema for which I really wanted the competition spot. People go to filmmaking for many reasons. I make films because I really love them. That’s my predominant occupation - watching movies and being moved by human emotions. I really think my film deserved to be considered as a film and not just a documentary. I was very proud of it. I knew it communicated something real about the human experience and I wanted it to stand straight in the eye of other films.