[Marxism] Born Into Brothers [film review]
M. Junaid Alam
mjunaidalam at msalam.net
Fri Dec 10 22:28:13 MST 2004
December 8, 2004
MOVIE REVIEW | 'BORN INTO BROTHELS'
Nurturing the Talents of Children in Calcutta
*By A. O. SCOTT *
The impulse to document the lives of poor, neglected and oppressed
people, which motivates countless filmmakers and photojournalists, is
unquestionably noble, but it is not without certain ethical
difficulties. Vital as it may be to bring news of human suffering to
audiences who might otherwise remain comfortably ignorant, such exposure
does not always help the suffering.
While most films of its kind allow this contradiction to hover in the
background, "Born Into Brothels,"
a new documentary about children growing up in Calcutta's rough and
squalid red light district, faces it squarely.
Rather than simply record the lives of those children, Zana Briski, a
New York-based photojournalist who is one of the film's directors (along
with Ross Kauffman), became their teacher and their advocate. They, in
turn, started out as her subjects and became her collaborators. The
resulting film is moving, charming and sad, a tribute to Ms. Briski's
indomitability and to the irrepressible creative spirits of the children
At some point after arriving in Calcutta in the mid-1990's, Ms. Briski
had the simple, improbable and altogether inspired idea of organizing a
photography class. The seven children, four girls and three boys, who
are the focus of "Born Into Brothels," were given cameras to take
pictures of the world around them. Their work provides the film with
some of its most beautiful and revealing images, offering glimpses of
life in the crowded, colorful alleyways of the red light district that
no outsider could capture.
The young photographers approach their tasks with impressive
seriousness, and a few of them seem to be budding art critics as well as
fledgling artists, offering detailed analyses of lighting and composition.
They also benefit from Ms. Briski's presence, and from her connections.
In addition to taking them on photographic field trips to the seashore
and the zoo, she organizes exhibitions of their work in India and in New
York, and persuades Avijit, an especially talented boy, to enter an
international competition. But while "Born Into Brothels" recounts her
tireless efforts to help her protégés escape from the poverty and sex
work that seems to be their destiny, it also shows the limits of what a
single person, however dedicated, can do. Ms. Briski's goal was to find
boarding schools for the children in her class, which would offer both
educational opportunities and, more important - especially for the girls
- a refuge from the violence and degradation of the brothels.
The challenges she faced ranged from the chaotic state of Calcutta's
government bureaucracy to the resistance of the children's parents.
"Born Into Brothels" tempers its optimism with realism in a way that is
both uplifting and heartbreaking. Like Jonathan Kozol's books about
young people in American cities, it takes an almost naïve delight in the
pluck and intelligence that blossom in middle childhood, while exposing
the cruelty of social arrangements that allow those qualities to be
squandered. No film can dispel that cruelty, but in giving a handful of
children the opportunity to regard themselves as artists and to perceive
their surroundings as raw material, Ms. Briski snatches a measure of
hope from depressing circumstances.
*'Born Into Brothels'*
Opens today in Manhattan.
Produced and directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski; in English and
Bengali, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Mr. Kauffman
and Ms. Briski; edited by Nancy Baker and Mr. Kauffman; released by
ThinkFilm and HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films. At the Film Forum, 209 West
Houston Street, west of the Avenue of the Americas, South Village.
Running time: 85 minutes. This film is not rated.
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