BORN INTO BROTHELSR
Of the many injustices in the world, few stir us to action like the ones directed against the weak, the defenseless, the assailable. When Zana Briski entered the red-light district of Calcutta in 1998 to photograph the lives of prostitutes, what she found even more compelling were their children, girls forced to join "the line" shortly after puberty, and boys and girls stigmatized and denied an education because of their mother's prostitution. The British photographer stopped taking pictures and started teaching the children her craft. Born into Brothels is the story of Briski's students, eight girls and boys whose photographs soon inspired other professional photographers to continue the work Briski had begun.
Soon after buying the children automatic cameras, Briski picked up a mini-DV and began to film them, allowing the children to address the camera directly and to discuss their experiences taking pictures. That led her into their troubled homes and deeper into their chaotic lives. Briski soon realized she needed a cinematographer and in 2000 convinced Ross Kauffman, a documentary film editor, to join her in Calcutta. The two worked together to complete Born into Brothels, which premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival earlier this year and is now making its theatrical debut.
Briski and Kauffman, new to the craft of directing, obviously could not agree on whether the documentary should be Briski's story or the children's. When Briski is on-camera, Born into Brothels becomes discursive, following her efforts to get the children into boarding schools, which require her to navigate the labyrinthine Indian bureaucracy, as well as the equally daunting web of social and cultural tradition that circumscribes the lives of the children. In these sequences, the children are thrust to the background. Despite the film's lack of cohesiveness, Briski and Kauffman exhibit a keen eye for images that immediately communicate the dismal existence of those forced to live in the red-light district. A few quick shots, a filthy, tenuously lit hallway in a brothel, a student photographer scrubbing pots for money, and a child leaving her room so her prostitute-mother can work, illustrate the obstacles the children face in imagining a different life.
The best sequences in Born into Brothels are those named for the eight children, for the immensely talented Avigit whose mother is burned to death by one of her customers, and for Suchitra, equally gifted, who struggles to overcome her family's insistence that she join "the line" and begin earning her living. Their still photos-Suchitra's became the cover of Amnesty International's 2003 calendar-and those of the other children tell the entire story, the one the filmmakers could not tell. Briski and Kauffman failed to rescue all of the children whose photos appear in the film: Some still attend the boarding schools Briski found for them, while others succumbed to the pathos of the red-light district, but their pictures have already transformed the lives of the Calcutta prostitutes and their children. Not only has Briski convinced others to join her, but Calcutta is now a city impossible to envision except through the eyes of the children.