Not-so-great expectations

The children 'Born into Brothels' in Calcutta may find their way out with a camera

Calcutta's red-light district is the setting for Zana Briski's activist documentary, which follows the children of prostitutes as the director teaches them to use a camera and dream about a life outside of the brothels.

"The men who enter our building are not so good," a child's voice says as Born Into Brothels begins. And with that, viewers may suspect they know exactly where this Oscar-winning documentary is about to take them. Brothels follows a photographer who lived with and documented the lives of prostitutes in Calcutta's red-light district. But surprisingly, the film is not a festival of misery, painting a desperate portrait of these women and the young children who spend their days playing mere yards away while Mom earns her keep. Calling it wholly optimistic would be an overstatement, but while the movie shows a world where no one should have to live, it is rooted in the fervent hope that not all its inhabitants are doomed to die there.

Photographer Zana Briski is not a social worker, but she has the heart of one. Upon getting to know the children of the prostitutes, Briski quickly arrives at a project she hopes might broaden their horizons: She buys them cameras and begins to teach them the art of photographing their world. The kids are bright and receptive, having fun with their lessons. We watch as, through the lens, their eyes see their streets and neighbors in a new light. They are quick to understand the aesthetic principles "Auntie Zana" shares with them, and they are soon taking truly remarkable photographs, full of unexpected juxtapositions, striking compositions, and vibrant color schemes.

As the film goes on, Briski works on two fronts to lift her new friends out of their dead-end lives: She tries to get them admitted to good schools, and she brings their photographs to the attention of the global art community.

Born Into Brothels

Dir. and writ. Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman (R)
Her first goal proves heartbreakingly difficult. Calcutta's institutions seem designed to treat anyone born in the red-light neighborhood as a nonentity: Many of the children don't have the documents they need to be admitted to a real boarding school, and government officials make getting those documents practically impossible. It's clear that the children's families are universally unwilling to meet these challenges, so Briski takes them as her own and sticks with them past the point where most people would quit. Viewers may feel some righteous indignation at the family members who simply refuse to let their children enter school, or who take it for granted (as some of the children do, at least in the beginning) that their daughters will take their places on the street within a couple of years.

On the latter front she has more success. She organizes high-profile gallery shows in other countries, and one in Calcutta where the children are treated like celebrities and interviewed on television about their art. Briski's most talented pupil, a willful boy named Avajit, is even invited on an expenses-paid trip to Amsterdam, where a photographic institution wants him to spend time with talented children from around the globe. Even this spectacular opportunity is viewed with skepticism in the community, and the film waits anxiously to see if Avajit will go or not.

Briski and her filmmaking partner Ross Kauffman don't have the luxury of following these children for years (or maybe they simply want to get their story into public view while the kids could still be helped), so we don't learn as much about what happens to them as we'd like. What we do learn is sometimes very disappointing, sometimes cautiously hopeful. Whatever fruits Briski's efforts finally bear, the movie she has made is a gem - allowing us to get to know these kids as individual personalities and bringing real-life drama to what could have been a soul-crushing piece of socially conscious cinema.

By John DeFore

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