Film — Born Into Brothels (NR)

Born Into Brothels (NR)

By Amy Diaz

Photographer Zana Briski tries to save a small group of children living in Calcutta’s red light district through application of photography in the excellent documentary Born Into Brothels.

This documentary clearly deserves the Oscar it won. It is one of the few documentaries which, in addition to explaining the lives of its subjects, also steps in and attempts to improve their situations. While that action makes the movie eligible for a do-gooder award, what makes the movie Oscar-worthy — in addition to some heart-rending stories told without schmaltz or embellishment — is the way it also documents the overall failure of these efforts.

Briski and her partner Ross Kauffman arrived in Calcutta with the intention of capturing the lives of the city’s prostitutes, whose work provides the only income for families living in horribly squalid conditions. Understandably, however, the prostitutes weren’t so keen on being in a documentary. Instead, Briski gave still cameras to many of their children and taught them how to compose a shot, how to use light and shadow and let them take pictures of their own world. The results, particularly from one group of children, are amazing. Their photos are both ordinary and beautiful, common and painfully detailed. The photos show a world of vibrant color but also of extreme poverty, unimaginable squalor and complete hopelessness. The girls in her group (the children seem to be about 10 to 13 years old) are nearing entry into their own careers “in the line” (the phrase used by these children that know all too well what waits for them in adulthood). Already, many of them have pressure from the aunts, grandmothers and mothers who are also in prostitution to begin earning money. The men, when they are around, seem useless, too clouded by drugs or alcohol to care about the destruction around them. The boys in the group seem to have disgust for these men and pervasive fear that they will become them. The boys also display protective impulses toward the girls in their group as well as their own sense of inevitability about the fact that they probably won’t be able to save them.

As the kids grow into their talents, Briski becomes attached and sets out to save a class of seven kids from their brothel destinies. She tries to find boarding schools that will offer the education she hopes will lead to a better life and holds exhibitions of the students’ photos in New York and India to attract some awareness of both their situation and their talents. One boy even goes to Europe as part of an international photo competition. But the obstacles Briski faces are varied and daunting. The Indian officialdom has a love of paperwork of which Briski’s children inevitably do not have the right kind. And the parents have their doubts about the children pursuing this different life. In the end, most — but not all — of the children return more or less to the same hopeless situation from which they are plucked.

The exasperation Briski, and we, feel at this is what truly makes the movie worthwhile. These kids are talented — some of their abilities far outstrip what you’d generally see on the walls of an arts college gallery. But social forces are stronger than talent, stronger than one westerner who wants to do good. It’s a humbling message but one that’s told touchingly and, impressively, without exploiting its subjects.

- Amy Diaz

 
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