Best Documentary, 2004
Director: Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman
Born Into Brothels is a well-intentioned but somewhat problematic film that opens itself to two very different interpretations. Some will see this film as documenting the lives of children in Calcutta’s red light district and the difficulty they face in escaping what seems to be an inevitable and unfortunate future. Others will see it as a story of uninvited white/Western intervention into the lives of people in a developing nation and the subsequent infatalization of those people that that implies.
The film is directed by Ross Kauffman, who is never seen on camera, and Zana Briski who is, in essence, the film’s main character. The two had gone to Calcutta to document the lives of prostitutes in the red light district, but found the task impossible because their cameras forced the sex trade further underground and further out of reach of prying eyes. The children of the prostitutes, however, were fascinated by the cameras and so the filmmakers decided to take the opportunity to teach them about photography. Week after week, children gather as a class to learn about composition, lighting, choosing shots, and the mechanics of how a camera works. The photographs showcased throughout the film – some of them demonstrating remarkable skill – are all photos taken by the children in the class, children who have been voiceless due to circumstance and find a way to be heard through art.
At a certain point, Briski decides that it’s not enough just to teach them how to take pictures, she wants to get them out of the red light district as well by getting them into boarding schools and giving them a choice regarding their futures. Many of her students are girls, daughters of prostitutes who are themselves the daughters of prostitutes, and it seems unlikely that economic circumstances will afford any of them any opportunity other than to enter into the family business. You can’t fault Briski for wanting to help these kids, to whom she’s obviously become quite close over the course of a couple of years, and you can’t argue that she takes the task lightly. She goes through a lot in her efforts to get these kids into schools and her desire to help them – to actually and actively help them, rather than just feel sorry for them – is heroic, but this is also where the film begins to skirt a very fine and dangerous line.
As the story progresses, it seems to become less about the children and more about Briski’s attempts to help them. I don’t mean to imply that Briski’s motives were lacking in altruism, because I genuinely do not think that she wanted anything other than to help these kids, but I couldn’t help asking myself two questions: Is it her place to be doing this? and what do the parents of these children think? To a certain extent, Briski answers the first question, admitting that she’s neither their mother nor a social worker, and that there’s only so much that she can do; but we never really get a clear sense of what the parents think. The father of one of the boys is dismissed outright by Briski, not without reason given that he’s a hash addict who, in our brief glimpses of him, seems barely aware of his surroundings. The mothers of some of the girls are reluctant to send their daughters away, particularly those daughters on the cusp of puberty, and there is a sense (though this is never stated outright by the filmmakers) that they’re holding their daughters back in the hope of getting money in exchange for allowing the girls to go. But the role of parents in this story is minimal, which lends the film the unfortunate appearance of saying that the opinions of the parents don’t matter because the nice white lady knows best.
As the film winds down, it’s hard not to get a sinking feeling. Briski succeeds in getting most of the children into school but several of them don’t stay there, either leaving of their own accord or being removed by their parents. There is, however, one story that is a genuine success, that of Avijit, who is arguably the most naturally talented photographer of the class. Avijit is the son of the hash addict and towards the end of the film his mother is murdered by her pimp. He loses heart and, it seems, is well on his way down a very bad and very dark road. His work as a photographer has afforded him the opportunity to go to Amsterdam to participate in a show featuring the work of child photographers from around the world and Briski goes through hell trying to get him a passport so that he can go. Whatever you take away from the racial/political implications of the way the film unfolds, it’s difficult to argue that Briski didn’t do her absolute best to do right by these children.