A few days before the Southeast Asian tsunami hit, I screened for some teacher friends a tape of Born into Brothels, photographer Zana Briski's documentary about kids in Calcutta's red light district. The film, which follows the feisty class that Briski tutored in photography, had already played to raves on the festival circuit. But its resonance would only increase with the tsunami--the scale of which threatened to blot out singular stories, reducing victims to infinitesimal flecks dotting grim aerial views. As focus turned to that part of the world, the film by Briski and co-director Ross Kaufmann reminded us of the vivid and discrete personalities facing nearly insurmountable struggle; it allowed a glimpse of everyday poverty as seen literally through the eyes of India's least powerful.
Of course, all you need to do is watch an Oprah charity special to know that kids in poverty can often manage a smile while the cameras roll. What Born into Brothels provides is that rare chance to view the world as its young subjects do. We meet Briski's kids through their art as they interrogate their surroundings and offer one another clear-eyed peer critiques. We notice which young photographers are drawn to inanimate objects, which to human action. Some prefer the detail of drainpipes, the contrast of bright, billowing laundry, while others find symbolic expression in alleys and architecture. Some, like prankish 10-year-old Manik, experiment with hands in the frame; others snap sad, stationary figures; and still others, like self-possessed imp Puja, who draws confidence from her Brahmin status, zoom through the crowded streets on the backs of bikes, shutters clicking.
This exhilarating display of engagement and raw intellect begins to suggest some kind of cultural exceptionalism--especially when Briski broadcasts the group's achievements, mounting stateside and local exhibitions of the photos. As the work of husky, confident Avijit garners the attention of an international photography program, it seems the kids might escape their gloomy fate--prostitution for the girls and hustling or addiction for the boys. When it's clear that 14-year-old Sujitra will soon be forced to stop scrambling to the rooftops during Mother's sessions with men and "join the line" herself, Briski becomes a social advocate, working to gain the children's entry into private schools (and to secure Avijit a passport to a children's art conference in Amsterdam). Here she runs into roadblocks: infuriating red tape (one records office reveals a file system of rotting papers stacked ceiling-high), prejudice (schools steer clear of children of prostitutes, assuming, among other things, that they have HIV), and, most damning of all, the ambivalence of mothers who are loath to let their kids go. Suddenly, this liberal airlift fantasy begins to crumble.
One sometimes wishes that Briski and Kaufmann had spent more time interviewing the mothers, filling out backstories that surely would resemble those depicted in the 2003 doc The Day My God Died, which focused on the traffic of Indian and Nepalese women sold by families or mercenaries into sex slavery. Knowing that many of Calcutta's sex workers arrive by these means makes it less difficult to understand why mothers would be reluctant to part with these children who represent their only family. In a post-tsunami West full of news-watchers frustrated at the unwillingness of affected countries to allow foreign adoption of wave orphans, this reminds us that the pull of home and culture, even in conditions of destitution, regularly wins out over the unknown.
The style of Born into Brothels, with its meditative slo-mo interludes, lachrymose music, and ominously echoing street sounds, can be distracting. But the way that Briski and Kaufmann artily juxtapose intense photo classes, kinetic seashore and zoo field trips, articulate musings, and vivid photos argues implicitly for these kids' right to be seen as more nuanced than merely the resilient subjects of squalor-vérité.
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