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BORN INTO BROTHELS (director/writer: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman; cinematographer: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman; editor: Nancy Baker; music: John McDowell; Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman; THINKFilm; 2004-in English and Bengali with English subtitles)
“A well-intentioned idealistic look at a group of oppressed children in Calcutta’s red-light district.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born Into Brothels, the 2005 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, is a well-intentioned idealistic look at a group of oppressed children in Calcutta’s red-light district (in this case Sonagachi, one of many such districts) that is very moving as well as informative. It’s always a risk to chronicle real cases of suffering for the viewing pleasure of an audience, as the motives are always suspect in this cynical climate we live in. But in this case, we have a film that doesn’t lecture but allows the viewer to see for themselves the children in a respectful and natural way, of how they cope with their squalid lives, the overcrowded city, and how difficult it is to amount to anything if they don’t get an education. The filmmaker goes beyond just making a film by trying to better the lives of the seven children chronicled (four girls and three boys aged 10 through 14) she has become very close with and has become their spokesperson in trying to sell their pictures to get the money needed to enroll them into boarding schools. It shows that one caring person can make a difference but it’s not enough to change the way things are without the support of those in authority who have the power to make improvements for all such children.

In 1997 British-born but New York-based photojournalist Briski traveled to Calcutta to shoot the red-light district, and stumbled onto a story about the children of the prostitutes after befriending a number of them. On her return trip Briski provided them with point-and-shoot cameras and gave them pointers in basic photography, including editing techniques. The children took pictures of the world around them, the brothels, the streets, and of their daily lives. We see Briski, called affectionately Auntie Zana, take them on photographic field trips to the beach and the zoo, and how she uses her connections in the photography world to get exhibitions of her pupils work in a Calcutta bookstore and in Manhattan’s Sotheby’s.

Among them are the 12-year-old Avijit, considered the most talented, whose mother is murdered by her pimp during the filming (he represents India and wins a week’s trip in 2002 to Amsterdam for the World Press Photo Foundation program, which sponsors an exhibition of photography by children from all over the world); Kochi, a shy girl of 10, trapped into following the family line of prostitution; and the Eleven-year-old Puja, the most daring, who becomes the best street photographer because of her persistence.

The camera gave the children, both the young boys and girls, a new hope and view of the world as well as a new attitude about their worth. It’s a heartbreaking story told in an upbeat way, that results in a few failures and a few successes (only a few of the children are still at boarding school). What it shows the world is that these downtrodden children abandoned by family neglect, the aid agencies and the government are bright enough to achieve some success if given some kind of a chance. Briski’s foundation called Kids With Cameras continues to raise money to support the kids shown in the film and has expanded to have other photographers reach out to teach unfortunate children photography.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”