Born Into Brothels

December, 2004, Documentary

First time documentarians Zana Briski and Ross Kaufmann recently traveled to Calcutta, hoping to document conditions in that city's notorious red light district. To establish credibility with their subjects, they hit upon the idea of opening up a small photography class for some of the prostitutes' children, teaching them the rudiments of photography and supplying them with cameras. That project was so successful Briski and her collaborator decided to focus on the youngsters instead of their mothers, and this 85-minute film follows the kids as they wander the streets of their almost hermetically sealed neighborhood, capturing images which appeal, not to any specific direction of the filmmakers, but simply to the children's personal interests. The results are both individually remarkable and a reminder that enormous reservoirs of talent exist in every culture, simply awaiting the opportunity for proper expression.

In a quiet voiceover, Briski explains that she and her partner originally intended to concentrate their work on an examination of the sex workers--some 2000 of them--in the slums of India's most sprawling, chaotic mega-city. The filmmakers' initial thrust was met with some resistance however, although it's not certain whether that came from the women themselves or those who control them. In any event, this British team, with their cameras and sound equipment, immediately became the object of intense interest to the street kids who live with their mothers in the narrow streets and alleyways in which this saddest of industries operates. Tired of answering the children's pestering questions, the production team decided to hold classes in photography; these soon morphed into a program designed to equip some of the most persistent students with their own cameras. The filmmakers then simply followed their students around as they observed their habitat through a camera's lens. 

The results are astounding; with little training and lots of chutzpah, the kids produced some remarkable images, causing Briski and her crew to become ever more deeply involved in their protégées lives. The filmmakers abandon the idea of focusing on the prostitutes themselves and decide to follow the efforts of these fledging photographers. Can their mothers be convinced to enroll the children in school? Can the red-tape required to do so be overcome? Can their work be entered in competitions? When one youngster is invited to participate in an exhibition in Amsterdam, can the funds be found to send him there?  

While the young subjects of this documentary are individually charming and their photos well worth the praise they receive, "Born into Brothels" doesn't really work as a movie. Episodic in structure and lacking any "third-act" resolution, the film struggles to give form to a collection of random, disconnected experiences. Is there any connection between the photographic output of these neophytes and the conditions in which they live? Little effort is made to examine their home life or the substantive connections they have with the adults around them, yet Brothels suggests that a cause and effect relationship that simply doesn't hold up. These young people aren't examples of any 

particular damage done to them because of their mothers' livelihoods; the same results could be found in examining the under-developed talents of poor, often abused and disenfranchised children living in conditions of extreme poverty anywhere in the world, regardless of the source of the meager incomes generated by the parents raising them. 

The Verdict? Here’s a film in search of a subject that is in turn searching for a storyline. The face that it was made with good intentions, (and obviously benefited the children whose lives were forever touched by the experience) doesn't overcome its shortcomings as a movie. 

A footnote: The ratings board classified this film "R" because of the raw language repeatedly used by some of the mothers in dealing with their children. That decision makes no more sense here than it did when applied to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911"; another example of a censorship effort which allows the form of its rules to triumph over the substance of the work being judged. It's dumb, dumb, dumb.      

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