Born into Brothels (2004) ****
Directed by Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman. Cinematography, Ross Kauffman. Cast: misc. kids in Calcutta. 83 minutes. Rated R for some strong language (by adults).
Let me forget frills and come to the point. This film -which recently got an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature -is extraordinary in both the senses of that term: It is great; and it far from ordinary. The "story" is that Ms. Zana Briski, a London-born U.S resident and photographer, and American filmmaker Ross Kauffman, wanted to make a documentary on prostitution in India, specifically in Calcutta. This did not work out-and that's logical. If you are prostitute, or her relative, or her husband, or a client of brothels, you won't exactly be thrilled by the notion. So Ms. Briski returned to India to forget (mostly) about adults but concentrate on the children of prostitutes. No major problem with that. Now let me state that when people talk or write about this film, they concentrate on Ms. Briski, whom we see much on the screen. But Mr. Kauffman is there all the time, invisible because he is handling the movie camera, So, let us give unto Caesar the credit that belongs to Caesar. Ms. Briski, on her return to Calcutta, had the bright idea---no make this the brilliant idea, to provide a group of kids (children of prostitutes) with good, modern (i.e. automatic and easy to manage) still cameras, and to teach the kids how to use them. She also went beyond that by discussing the resulting pictures with and among the children. What the results are range from good to super- --and this includes an astonishing number of kids and of pictures. The photography sessions work out amazingly well. In a sense, photography gives the kids a "raison d'etre," a sort of purpose to life. The pictures and their making also bring smiles and laughter to the kids. They even photograph photographers, i.e. each other other. They sharpen their powers of observation in all ways. When the children are taken to the zoo-where they had never been -they are conscious of the animals living -if that's the word for it-in suffocatingly small and filthy cages. And the kids recognize themselves in the beasts, and the squalor, When Zana takes a bunch of children to the sea, by bus, the youngers jump for joy at the sight of something so new (I said "sea" but it may well be a lake, since the Bay of Bengal is quite distant from Calcutta.) Yes, they shoot photos there too, and are also discovering the freedom of space which contrasts with their "regular" life in suffocating, dismal, disgusting, prison-like spaces. Outside the tight brothel-homes the children (and their mothers) live (that's the wrong verb, of course) are the streets. And on the streets are packed humans and by wheeled vehicles of all types and sizes. For each car in good shape you glimpse, there are tons of dilapidated transports.
Zana Briski is anxious to get "her" kids away from the unspeakably sordid Red Light district and to schools-plus having Avijit, the most artistic one, to go to a special photography meeting in Amsterdam . But in both cases there are walls of bureaucracy to overcome -- and a passport is needed for Holland. Bureaucracies made those tasks nightmarish. For the boy to go to Amsterdam it takes Zana and the child a wait -in a packed super-crowd of applicants, of eight hours of waiting in line, though "line" is a euphemism.
Documents, of which all we see are handwritten, add to the slowness of things. And, of course, for anything, it takes getting the children's parents OK - which often is not granted. And for acceptance by a school it also takes tests to determine that the kids are not H.I.V. positive.
There are more developments, this time nice but slow, such as a pictures show at Sotheby's. And by now, the film has become, in many respects, a Children's Liberation Movement scaled to a small number of youngsters. Even assuming that it is going to succeed, we are talking here not of a drop in a glass of water but of a drop in the Ocean. It boggles the mind. .What little can be accomplished points to how much needs to be done. But even if very viewer of the film tithed him/her/self, even if everyone else did this and send money (to whom?) it would be like fighting a tsunami with bare hands - or like the Augean Stables
Nevertheless, as this movie is so good and so one-of-a-kind, you owe it to yourself to see it.