Beautiful symphony about a difficult topic

According to the article Labor Slavery, The 5 Countries Where This Situation Reigns published on the site El Comercio, labor exploitation occurs mainly in developing countries where labor rights are highly violated. [1] India occupies the first place in the list, that also contains China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. The fact that India is one of the countries with the highest rates of labor exploitation is due not only to low wages but also to the fact that workers work under irregular safety conditions, with no medical care and extended work shifts. These types of conditions are present in these and other countries where there is no state oversight to support the labor rights of the men and women involved in activities primarily related to manufacturing for export trade.

The article also states, that”according to ILO data (International Labour Organization), almost 21 million people are victims of labor exploitation and forced labor: 11.4 million women and girls, and 9.5 million men and boys. These figures become even more worrying if we compare them with those of the Global Slavery Index 2016, whose estimate is around 45.8 million people subjected to some form of modern slavery in the world.”

With a population of around 1.311 billion people, India has the highest rate in the world, with more than 18 million people under some form of slavery or labor exploitation. And although large companies and multinationals are beginning to assume a recent responsibility to put an end to this fact, mentions another Internet portal Equal Times in its article The Multiple Faces of Labor Exploitation, the exploitation is still very marked and extended to the work related to agriculture.2 In this type of ”agribusiness”, in addition to the repercussions for the environment, workers are subjected to extreme working conditions that are completely out of line with the standards of a decent minimum wage that compensates them for the working conditions they face.

In The Golden Thread, the documentary directed by Indian documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain, we can immerse ourselves in the industrial product that comes from the Jute plant: eco-friendly bags of which India is the world's leading producer. Jute is cultivated in farms and taken to factories that were created at the beginning of the 20th century where the labor upswing around jute was prosperous and the economic conditions offered to workers were considered high, which led to a boom of work with this material, but that little by little, until today, has decreased almost to extinction. This traditional practice, which brought together thousands of workers, declined mainly with the advent of technology that has progressively transformed the old-fashioned industry, which caused the decrease in labor force, but also thanks to the emergence of even cheaper synthetic materials.

In Jain's documentary we can perceive precisely the decadence of the factories but also the decadence of the workers who, immersed in poverty and in a personal self-extinction of dreams and family time, perform exhausting work shifts (always announced by the very loud factory alarm) in dangerous conditions that affect their health and under constant pressures for a higher and more efficient production. This decadence, poverty, pressure, domination and exploitation are aesthetically and sonorously well portrayed by Jain in her film. Her work so elevates the images and sounds that are produced inside the factories to the point that she manages to transform the discordant and contradictory relationship that the workers have with their world of work into an audiovisual beauty and symphony.

Here, Nishtha Jain not only makes a seemingly silent follow-up but, quite the opposite, allows her subjects to intervene in the camera, to look and feel themselves filmed precisely by the camera. The discomfort in some of them is perceived, as well as the openness of others as an opportunity to talk about the lack of labor dignity, low wages, dreams and a better past. This particular well-developed aesthetic, accompanied also by interviews that continuously break the observational mode, draws a nostalgic panorama of a past time and a worrying present without an apparent better future

Jain in previous interviews has mentioned the complexity of her films as they are not designed to speak of a single thematic line but of a set of complexities and contrasts that develop and interweave with each other. This is why watching The Golden Thread is visually and sonically beautiful and striking but confusing, dense, repetitive and dark at the same time. Jain and her cinematographer Rakesh Haridas look with a keen and highly aesthetic eye at the various aspects that they want to show us. Together with her sound designer Niraj Gera, Jain listens with precision to compose the musicality through the sounds that reverberate in the factories and dull the beating hearts of the men and women who dream of a living wage.

The documentary, as the director herself states, is not only about labor exploitation, it is also about the ecosystem, about the men and women who work there. But for me, personally, The Golden Thread is also about the relationship that exists between her characters and Nishtha as a filmmaker. That is, about the express relationship between the author and the subject(s) portrayed. As I watched the film I couldn't help but constantly wonder why what I was feeling was somehow contradictory to me. And it is here that I ask myself the question of whether the way in which the images, from the process of their collection by the camera until they end up in the movie theater, can contradict the principle for which they were made. In this documentary we can see, for instance, a man (apparently a supervisor or in charge of the production chain executed by the men and women who are part of the cheap labor force), who is interrogated and questioned in front of the camera by his superior. The man can only look at the camera with embarrassed eyes for a few moments to show his superior that there is a camera in front of him and that what is happening is humiliating; an element that the superior uses as an advantage to exert more pressure on the man.

Pretending that the images that are collected for a documentary are basically a faithful copy of what happens in reality itself is a mistake, but above all, understanding that the process of making a documentary may contain important ethical questions is another aspect that should be reflected upon with caution. According to what Frederik Le Roy wrote in his article The Documentary Real: Thinking Documentary Aesthetics, that ”if documentary theory holds on to objectivity as its primary measure of value, it will inevitably arrive at the conclusion that the genre is fundamentally flawed.” To undo this theoretical double bind, Stella Bruzzi proposes an approach that will ”simply accept that a documentary can never be the real world, that the camera can never capture life as it would have unraveled had it not interfered, and the results of this collision between apparatus and subject are what constitutes a documentary – not the utopian vision of what might have transpired if the camera had not been there.”

There are then two aspects to this. Subject/object and Filmmaker. Is it somehow the filmmaker, abusive when behind the film there is a non-consensual intrusion or manipulation of the facts, a bias, a deviation towards a subjective point of view (that pretends to be objective) but above all when there is behind it a commercialization of suffering? (without making the distinction of whether the film is for a niche of festivals or commercial broadcasting channels). And, here my question around this essay, are the portrayed subjects/objects abused and re-victimized when their conditions/stories/ are used for the purpose of creating a film?

After having had the opportunity to participate in a short interview with the director Nishtha Jain, we were able to exchange a few brief words on this particular point and her response to whether there is an abuse of the already exploited workers of the huge Jute factories when filmed for her film, she replied that she could not know what the interpretations of other people might be, that she could not anticipate that kind of response from the workers who participated or from the viewing public. However, it was key for her to express to me that the documentary was also about the process of making a documentary, of going into the factories and perceiving what was happening to the workers in front of the camera. Likewise, she expressed during our interview that her main intention with this film and with the films she has made previously about workers in India is to denounce. To denounce the abuses to which men and women are subjected within the different social spheres in her country, including the labor sphere.

Therefore, here is the question I ask myself: how can we access the audiovisual representation of this or other diverse issues (injustices, inhumanities, abuses and other catastrophes and situations that afflict human existence and our societies) without crossing the thin line of over- exploitation? I think that within this documentary as well as within others that have been filmed to expose similar issues there is an indirect re-exploitation even if it is not wanted or even if its purpose is the opposite. It is clear that the documentary can never be real life, but a reconstruction that emerges in the diversity of conditions that are created or given by the relationship of its author and its subjects/objects. Hence, since documentary is a reconstruction, is it valid to film a topic and aestheticize it? Can ethical questions be set aside for a time because documentary is a representation of reality and not reality itself?

Can we think that there is no other way to do it and consider respecting the subjects/objects by respecting the way of approaching to them and the message that comes to the viewer from this relationship? As spectators we can only "trust" or "doubt" what is presented to us through the movie screen, however, beyond questioning the aesthetic and audiovisual nature and the information provided as a whole, we are also left to reflect on how filming can contribute to indirect power dynamics that inevitably distort the message that the documentary wants to convey to the viewer.

In The Golden Thread, we are left as a commitment, apart from delighting ourselves audiovisually with the symphony of its images and of being outraged by the incessant way in which hundreds of workers of Jute factories work under critical conditions, we should reflect on the experience and relationship created between the director and her characters and the possible distortion of the message that in principle is intended to be expressed to us, through the already complex and also questionable cinematographic art.

[1] Editorial, El Comercio, “Labor Slavery, The 5 Countries Where This Situation Reigns”, 2017, (consulted November 26, 2023)
[2] Editorial, Tamara Gausi, “The Multiple Faces of Labor Exploitation” 2018, (consulted November 26, 2023)
[3] Le Roy, F., Vanderbeeken, R. The Documentary Real: Thinking Documentary Aesthetics. Found Sci 23, 197–205 (2018).

Ingrid Pérez
ELTE BTK Film Studies