of lost children: (l-r) subject and director Briski in
Born Into Brothels.
I Behind the Camera
by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman
Winner of this year’s Acad-emy Award for Best Documentary
Feature, Born Into Brothels follows the progress of
Zana Briski, a New York-based photojournalist, as she tries
to rescue several kids in Sonagachi, a brutal red-light district
in Calcutta. Briski lived in Calcutta for several years documenting
the experiences of prostitutes; while doing so, she became
close to many of their kids. Most of them, boys and girls
between 10 and 14, are used as slave labor.
Briski’s involvement starts when she gives seven of them cameras
so they can record images of their lives for themselves. Impressed
with the results, she then organizes them into a photography
class, in the hope that giving them a skill and the self-esteem
that goes along with it will help the kids to avoid the doom
of becoming prostitutes, pimps, and drug addicts just like
Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman examine the abject squalor
of Sonagachi and the harshness of the kids’ lives in momentary
and nonjudgmental increments. Foregoing any social analysis,
the filmmakers concentrate on the children’s vivid, effusive
personalities and their penetrating photographs (those that
are shown onscreen are surprisingly beautiful and skillful).
But Briski realizes that getting their photos into exhibits
and auctions will not be enough to change their fate. After
explaining that she is not a social worker, she embarks on
a mission to get the kids a real education. Since they are
the children of criminals, the mission is nearly hopeless,
as well as being dauntingly labor-intensive.
Despite the grim realties of the story—talented Avijit, who
discusses his painting and picture-taking with the articulation
of poet, loses interest in an important photo competition
after his mother is burned to death—Born Into Brothels
emphasizes the joyful over the tragic. On the way back from
a bus trip to the beach, the young shutterbugs burst out dancing
in the aisle, a sequence that’s captured with footage so grainy
and washed-out it appears like a dream.
The film’s impromptu style works well for capturing the spontaneity
of the kids, but this artily detached approach is ultimately
frustrating, especially when it comes to Briski, who is as
much the film’s subject as the kids are. Born into Brothels
would be even stronger if her heroic involvement were given
more attention than the impressionistic narrative allows.