February 07, 2005

MOVIES: Born Into Brothels (Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman, 2004)

Photographer Zana Briski had lived in Calcutta's infamous red light district for a few years, working on a project about the lives of the women who live and work there, when she found herself teaching photography to one group of eight children. Realizing that this was potentially more interesting than what she'd been doing, she recruited documentary filmmaker Ross Kauffman to join her and document what was happening.

The prostitutes of Calcutta -- like prostitutes everywhere -- are stigmatized, and so are their children, who find it nearly impossible to get the kind of education that would allow them to make a better life for themselves. The vast majority of the girls born in the red light district will eventually become prostitutes themselves.

The children we meet in Born Into Brothels are aware of what life holds in store for them, and while they are understandably frustrated by the limitations they face, they somehow manage to find shreds of joy and beauty to cling to, especially in the photographs they take.

About halfway through the film, Briski sets out to get a decent education for the students in her class, and begins hunting for boarding schools that will take them as students. It's not an easy search; most schools refuse to even consider children of criminals as students.

Born Into Brothels doesn't have a tidy happy ending, or even a tidy unhappy ending; we're simply given a glimpse into a short period of these children's lives, and at one women's attempt to do something to help them, no matter how small it may be in the face of the larger problem. It's a fine movie, and deserving of its spot of this year's list of Oscar-nominated documentaries.

That said, there is something a bit creepy and voyeuristic about the way the movie is essentially packaging the suffering and poverty of these children as entertainment for the rest of the world. I'm not sure there's a way to get around that problem, and certainly Briski and Kauffman have worked hard to make the movie as non-exploitative as possible.

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