February 18, 2005

Born Into Brothels

Directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The Oscar-nominated documentary Born Into Brothels wades into the suffocating squalor of Calcutta's infamous Sonagachi red-light district to meet the prostitutes' children, all between the ages of 10 and 14. Surrounded by poverty, filth, negligent parents and vulgar neighbours, they cope with being the dregs of a rigid caste system, endure deadening dawn-to-dusk domestic toil, and face a grim future in which teenaged girls have little choice but to join the family business. Their tragic existences in this clandestine underworld undeniably make a compelling feature.

Photojournalist - and the film's co-director - Zana Briski initially lived in a brothel to capture the lives of prostitutes, and ended up supplying photography lessons, point-and-shoot cameras and film stock to their kids. They each assembled a portfolio of arresting, vibrant, spontaneous and layered snapshots, for which Briski then worked hard to attain exposure through various exhibitions, an Amnesty International calendar and a Sotheby's auction. Convinced that a boarding-school education was the children's only ticket out of the Sonagachi sewer, she raised tuition money selling their work.

Briski's noble efforts emerge as the film's dominant narrative. She thanklessly cuts through bureaucratic red tape to secure a passport for the prodigious 12-year-old Avijit to attend a World Press Photo conference in Amsterdam, persuades boarding schools to admit the kids, and takes them to a clinic to get STD tests. The film's arguably more significant and riveting accounts from the children's own perspectives unfortunately lack focus and take a back seat. This presents a curious contrast to the segment in The Five Obstructions, during which Lars von Trier sought to challenge Jørgen Leth's detachment as a documentarian by sending him to shoot in Bombay's Falkland Road red-light district. Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman have considerably more access to the brothel and its inhabitants than Leth did, and she even becomes a major figure in the daily lives of her subjects. Yet with Briski's own viewpoint overpowering those of the children, Born Into Brothels emanates that adverse sense of detachment. It's possible to misconstrue this as subconscious colonialism on the part of the directors, since the kids here seem more like Briski's charity cases than subjects she's recording.

Despite its flaws, the film renders some truly heartbreaking vignettes in which the children grapple with their bleak reality. Briski provides a few practical examples to assuage their predicament, and perhaps some viewers will find her efforts inspirational.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.