Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids
Directed by Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman. (2004, R, 85 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 18, 2005
Winner of the 2004 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Born Into Brothels is a devastating portrait of impoverished Calcutta children who are born into the sex trades, yet the film is also an inspiring document about human possibilities and the need to strive despite impossible odds. Filmmaker Briski and her collaborator Kauffman went to India in the mid-Nineties to document CalcuttaÕs prostitution trade. However, the more they investigated the less they saw since the secrecy of the red light district enveloped the sex trade in invisibility once the cameras began to roll. What became more evident in this light were the vast numbers of children in the district, born to prostitutes and facing certain futures in servitude to the sex trade. Briski begins teaching photography classes to some of the children and provides them with cameras and instructions on how to channel their perceptions into photographic images. These children capture the images of their daily lives, although their pictures and styles are reflective of their personalities and interests. Born Into Brothels focuses on seven children, some of BriskiÕs best and most intuitively gifted students, whom she tries to get placed in private schools as she claims this is probably their only means of escaping the red light district. The obstacles are stupendous, but so is BriskiÕs indomitability. The amount of red tape she wades through, and the beseeching, badgering, and cajoling she employs takes the patience of a Job – or maybe a Mother Teresa. Her travails are a reminder of individual responsibility and the need to attempt to make the world a better place despite the almost certain inevitability of failure. Once a viewer sees these children and their photographs (they were made into a calendar one year for Amnesty International), they are impossible to forget: children, who for once in their lives, can see in their photographs the efficacy of their actions. Heartbreak sets in because we realize as we are watching the film that, by now, most of these pre-adolescents have been turned out into the sex trade and have long ago abandoned their childhood. Born Into Brothels manages to steer pretty clear of Western angst about international poverty and doomed childhoods. The movieÕs greatest gift is its ability to perceive a world that is not bereft of all possibility, while also acknowledging the cruel realities that impede most progress. The only outrage is to never have tried.