Directed by: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman
The most important thing to know about this Oscar-winning documentary is that it's not what you'd expect. Set in the red light district of Calcutta, the film cannot, of course, avoid grinding poverty, filth and misery. What's surprising, and what makes this film so magnificent, is that while you're wiping away the predictable tears (you've been warned), you're even more overwhelmed by the joyful messages of the film: that there are indeed courageous people born into privilege who try to help others who are less fortunate; that the creative spirit is inherent in all children and, if nurtured, can soar to unimagined heights; and that if you try to rescue 100 children and fail with 99 of them, your success rate is still higher than if you hadn't tried in the first place.
English photographer Zana Briski was drawn to the world of the prostitutes in Calcutta's notorious Sonaghchi district. She wanted to document their lives, but the women refused to allow themselves to be photographed, especially by a foreigner who didn't speak Bengali. The women's children, however, were friendly to Briski and her filmmaking partner Ross Kauffman, so she turned her attention to them.
As the offspring of the lowest rung of Indian outcasts, the children of prostitutes exist in unrelentingly desolate conditions, where hunger is frequent and physical and mental abuse are constant. The boys face a soulless future of crime and addiction. The girls will either be sold to men or brothels in other cities, or "join the line" locally, along with their mothers and grandmothers. "Without help," Briski pleads, "they are doomed."
Eager to see the children's view of their world, Briski gives them cameras. Eight children meet regularly for "Aunt Zana" to teach them photography -- how to load the camera with film, hold the camera steady, look through a loupe to see the photos on contact sheets. All of them learn to love photography, for it empowers them to see their world without averting their eyes and to find in it a universal truthfulness worth sharing.
Under Briski's guidance, the children thrive. Their photographic skills grow -- from rolls of film that turn out blank because they forgot to use a flash at night to an incredible collection of unique, powerful images. They take portraits of the district's adults and children, still lifes inside the tenements, and scenics at the beach and the zoo. (One photo, of a young prostitute swathed in aquamarine and green fabric, gained fame as the image on an Amnesty International poster.)
Ten-year-old Avijit is a natural artist, enthralled with color. He develops into such a remarkable talent that he is awarded a trip to Amsterdam to study photography. It takes months for Briski to fight through India's mind-numbing bureaucracy and gather the mountain of paperwork needed to get his passport. "There is nothing called 'hope' in my future," Avijit says. He grows fatalistic during the wait as he reacts to the latest blow from real life - his mother is set on fire by her drunken pimp and dies. But Avijit eventually manages to take the trip, and it changes his life forever.
Meanwhile, Briski desperately tries to get some of the girls into a boarding school so they can gain an education. Here, she has only partial success, because some of the mothers, like self-hating parents anywhere, won't allow their children to escape the misery of their own lives.
Born Into Brothels is sad, wrenching and heartbreaking -- and joyous, triumphant and brilliant. Don't miss it. (For more information about Kids with Cameras, visit www.kids-with-cameras.org.) Rated R for some sequences of strong language.
-- reviewed by Marci Miller