[Marxism] Born Into Brothers [film review]

M. Junaid Alam mjunaidalam at msalam.net
Fri Dec 10 22:28:13 MST 2004


          December 8, 2004


    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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