IFFLA 2023: The Golden Thread by Nishtha Jain

This textured and self-reflexive documentary follows workers in a jute factory
Review of Nishtha Jain's The Golden Thread
Review of Nishtha Jain's The Golden Thread

Director: Nishtha Jain

Duration: 85 mins

As a documentary filmmaker, there might be an impulse to secrete something as cinematically polished as possible, and by cinematic I mean the desire to never assert the complicated subjectivity of being looked at, making the camera feel as invisible as possible, as though the film unspools naturally, unprovoked, from the time and place in which it is set. Any shadow of the cinematographer, any person looking uncomfortably at the camera, any shuffling of sandpapered reality, any evidence of a mic has to be scrubbed clean. 

Director Nishtha Jain couldn’t care less for this. In her documentary The Golden Thread, she follows in a snaking movement, from behind, workers walking through a jute mill that is slowly creaking away into exhausted extinction. The workers keep looking over their shoulder, at the camera, as though asking — are you keeping up? Or perhaps, you’re still here? Or, perhaps, what are you still looking for? There is a squirming discomfort here — for the protagonist, but also, us, the spectator. In a previous film of hers, At My Doorstep (2009), the person she was following, walking ahead, looks back at the trailing hand-held camera and asks, “Will you go ahead or shall I?”

The tension here is the ethical kink of being a voyeur. Why is our gaze being met? As Jain notes, in her International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) Filmmaker talk, a film “has to question the filming… the awareness is acute, the film is self-reflexive, questioning me, my power”. If suspension of disbelief is a virtue in cinema, Jain complicates that. Suspension of disbelief is actually “suspension of belief in documentary”.

The Light Fantastic

It is easy to assume that just because the film renounces its cinematic duties, making no attempt to mask its abrasiveness, that it lacks rigour or poise. False. The rigour of The Golden Thread is in its visual texture, of jute looking like gold being spun, leaving dust in its wake. Or pools of egg-yolk light falling in shafts on patches of jute thread, shot by Rakesh Haridas. It is also in the exquisitely attentive sound design by Niraj Gera that allows both immersion and isolation — to put us in the middle of the factory floor, all that noise and cross-conversation, but also to, in one moment, seclude the sound of jute scree on the floor being swept and collected, the whoosh of jute being piled onto a container that is rattling along like a train, every wheel against every bump of the mill floor, clean and clear. If jute were a person, she would be exhilarated by the attention paid to her sighs and screams — when she is flattened, when she is braided, when she is swallowed, when she is spat out; they are all different sounds of different densities of jute being pressed into different shapes by different pressures. Even the turn of the wheel of a bicycle tinkles like windchimes. 

What is the sound of fibre dust dangling in the air? Like soft rain, or like someone walking on crumpled wrapping paper. It settles on the hair of the women on the mill floor like a diadem. 

To remind us that jute is an industrial product that comes from farms, despite being spun into its finished sheen through machines, the film goes to the countryside where the jute plant is stacked, dried, and transported. We are reminded in these tonal shifts, there is more to the story. 

A Scattered Story

The film’s preoccupation, however, is labour in a fading world. The mills, created in the boom of the late 19th and early 20th Century, are on their final leg, losing their edge to synthetics. While labour is dwindling, there is also an attempt to unionise. The labour is gendered, as is the film’s tilt. The labouring men and women are asked different questions — men are asked about their health (“If I don’t smoke ganja, I am unable to push the load,” says a worker who also moonlights as a godman healer); women are asked about balancing domestic chores with the working hours. There are samosas and rotis, and beedis and gutka. Jain isn’t interested in idealising their labour. In one scene, the workers speak of how their jute is far superior to the synthetic ones available in the market. It is followed by the camera trailing men in tucked shirts and polished shoes, testing the quality of this jute, seeing how it snaps so easily by being tugged at — weak. Where is that promised tensility? 

The film, however, suffers from a scattered language. Jain, who, started off her career as a video editor for video news magazines, has a keen sense of rhythm and shock, placing disparate visuals next to each other which can feel discordant, like when the film is cruising between the fields where jute is stacked, the factories where it is processed, the children of these jute factory workers, and the younger workers who are fermenting dreams of working elsewhere. In these cuts, there is a sense that the film is trying to be larger than its shape, to express the story of jute, but also the people who clump around jute, defined by it, affected by its growth, and demise — to give equal attention to the material and the material lives of those attached. 

This ambitiousness bloats the film, unsteadying the emotional momentum of its human story, of mill workers caught in a fading world. This is captured in the voice-overs and interviews. But it is expressed, best, in the images — of men sleeping beside slurring machines, its sound like a lullaby, of namaz being performed silently, Hanuman stickers on machines, and images of Vishwakarma, the deity of the craftspeople, of sweat on bare bodies, and the casual crumpling of gutka in the hands of a worker who is looking ambivalently as a speech is given, insisting on labour dignity and higher wages — a life lived in the cracks and crevices between speeches and performances, slurped up by the quietly greedy camera. 

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