If ever a movie seemed immune to criticism, it’s Born Into Brothels, the Best Documentary winner at last month’s Oscars. To a Western audience, it’s about the saddest people in one of the saddest places on Earth: the children of sex workers in the red-light district of Calcutta, where there seems to be no baseline of poverty and squalor that can’t be lowered by looking around the next corner. Finding fault with such a noble, compelling project seems akin to booing the pope.
And in truth, the film’s faults are minor, and they’re overwhelmed by the passion and sincerity of the story. Zana Briski, a British-born American photographer who narrates and stars, is living in Calcutta and working on a photo project about prostitutes when she becomes fascinated by the children who grew up in this sometimes comically grim setting—and she discovers their happiness and innate creative spark haven’t been extinguished by the casual horrors of filth, depravity and hopelessness that make up their everyday lives. Briski, with only a touch of self-importance guiding her narrative, spends months earning the trust of a small group of children, and she spends even more time to gain a measure of dialogue with their parents. When Briski becomes frustrated with her inability to take photos that capture what she’s seeing, she decides to give cameras to eight kids between 10 and 14, sending them on assignment in their own back yards.
The result is remarkable. After Briski teaches them how to use the cameras (they call her “Zana Auntie”), a few of the children display an absolute knack for photography, and Briski delights in playing photo editor with them. They choose their favorite photos off contact sheets of the negatives, and they get excited to continue the project—awakening artistic resources that their everyday world never would have tapped.
Briski, who’s living among the prostitutes and drug dealers by now, gets even more excited about her stewardship. She takes them to the zoo, gets them tested for AIDS and even becomes determined to get the girls into boarding schools so they avoid the inevitable move into the family business. She even arranges a trip to Amsterdam for one particularly good young photographer. Observation becomes activism, and Briski becomes the star of the film, yet it’s still compelling, redeeming cinema.
There are a few moments of genuine wonderment in Born Into Brothels, when the world seems a bit less complex and foreboding thanks to the humanitarian efforts of a film crew that clearly knew it had Oscar gold in its own camera. Of course, the film has been hailed at film festivals across the world, and its Oscar win was no surprise. When Briski accepted the award, she thanked Geralyn White Dreyfous, the Salt Lake City Film Center’s executive director who served as an executive producer on the film.
And yet so much of Born Into Brothels is so good that it’s interesting to wonder why there isn’t more. The inner workings of this complex black-market economy would be absolutely fascinating, and Briski certainly seems close enough to the center of that world to examine it more fully; by the end, even some of the prostitutes trust her. The film is only 80-something minutes long, with plenty of room to tell a more rounded story about the genesis of this hell in which these kids are growing up.
Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman could have had so much more to say. Instead, we get only snapshots of the world, both from the children and from Briski, whose front-and-center narrative might even be a bit grating in a world without Nick Broomfield as a yardstick. It’s frustrating, but those impulses are fleeting when we see the shared wonder of Briski’s relationship with the kids. Perhaps the rest of this story can wait, because these kids seem to have a future after all.
BORN INTO BROTHELS ***.5 Documentary Directed by Ross Kauffman & Zana Briski