Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

2004

Biography / Documentary / News

74
IMDb Rating 7.2 10 15,875

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85 min
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Movie Reviews

Reviewed by Dilip 10 / 10 / 10

Don't miss this inspiring jewel of a film that concretely gives hope and shows us life through the photography and vivacity of children, and shows what a huge difference one person can make. 10 out of 10 st

Today I saw "Born into Brothels" at day 3 of 4 of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Even with another day left, I have some confidence that this will be the film I most appreciated seeing at this festival, and in fact is one of the most inspiring films I have seen in a long time. Directors and producers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman also hosted a question and answer session after the film, and I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Zana Briski, whose intimate involvement in this film and her selfless efforts have given me tremendous admiration for what she does; as I said in the Q&A period, if we had a few more people like her, the world would be a vastly better place for all of us. Ms. Briski is an established photographer and now first time director who began in 1997 to explore the lives of sex workers in Calcutta's red-light district, Sonagachi, where over 7000 women and (disgustingly sadly) girls are prostitutes. In order to better understand them, Zana lived for months at a time with them, and the children quickly befriended her. The children were curious to try their hands at taking pictures, and Zana helped to empower them and see the world through their eyes by teaching them photography and acquiring point-and-shoot 35mm film cameras for them, as well as helping them to critique and edit their pictures. The resulting pictures that the children took between the years 2000 and 2003 are striking. Some of the children clearly have innate talent in composition and artistry (see, for example, shot 17 "Girl on a Roof" or 14 "Horse", at the Kids with Cameras site mentioned at the bottom of my review), and all of them have works portraying the vitality of life so much so that Zana helped get one child invited to be part of a children's jury at a World Press Photo Foundation photo exhibit in Amsterdam in 2002, and for him to actually attend. Zana admits in the film that she is not a social worker, but wanted very much to help the boys and girls, for otherwise their future was a dismal one lacking hope beyond prostitution, drugs, pimping, and crime. She organized a photo exhibit in a Calcutta bookstore, garnering Zana's project and the individual children television and newspaper coverage. Zana has recently set up an organization, Kids with Cameras, that sells their prints to raise money for them, with 100% of the profits going to them. Twelve of these prints were the ones chosen for the 2003 "Amnesty International" calendar, and she even exhibited and auctioned the children's work at Sotheby's. She has helped to get several of the children into good boarding schools and recently helped a few to get email access and English lessons. The film itself is technically beautiful, with a melange of colors, sounds, and activity, centered on the children but also including others. The filmmakers in no way hide the unsavory life in Sonagachi, including disturbing cursing against the children, hopelessness of being able to in any way be involved in normal society, having no governmental support, facing tremendous bureaucracy to get anything changed even with Ms. Briski's help, and the total lack of police investigation or protection as painfully brought to light when one child's mother is killed by a pimp in a "kitchen fire". In making the film, Mr. Kauffman and Ms. Briski effectively used fast camera pans, red overtints, and grainy film at times to portray an environment where participants would not want to be carefully filmed. They could have made this a sad and detailed documentary about this red light slum, but instead chose to recognize its nature but focus on the innocence of the children and hope that could be offered them. If you have the opportunity to see this film at a festival, don't miss it. I understand that HBO/Cinemax may be distributing the film as well to afford a much wider audience. It is a heartwarming film that left me with a jumble of emotions - hopefulness and hopelessness; incredulity and shock at human nature combined with tremendous admiration at the selflessness and difference that one person can make; sadness at the overwhelming poverty, filth, and insouciance of a society that lets a community like Songagachi exist and yet tremendous happiness at the children's glee in living their lives with innocent play and their ambition to move out of the community. For the quality and uniqueness of the film, as well as the tremendous service that Zana Briski portrays, this film gets 10 stars out of 10 in my book. Don't miss this jewel of a film - and consider supporting the work that goes on. --Dilip Barman April 3, 2004

Reviewed by howard.schumann 10 / 10 / 10

A testimony to the transforming power of art

In India, red light districts are booming in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Calcutta where millions of transient men live and work far away from their homes and wives. The oldest and the largest of these is Sonagachi in Calcutta where the women have organized into a sex trade union of more than 5,000 active workers and have spread awareness about AIDS and HIV, making Sonagachi one of the few red light districts in the country that does not accept clients without condoms. Subject to a class system that puts them on the lowest rung of Indian society, the mostly illegitimate children of the sex workers are also expected to "join the line" when they reach a certain age. Minor girls are the most sought after in the brothels and secure the highest price, making it very difficult for the parents to let them leave, especially when the only other alternative may be the starvation of their entire family. In 1997, photographer Zana Briski was assigned to capture images of Sonagachi. While the women were reluctant to let her into their lives, the children quickly responded and Briski became a resident of the brothel for five years. During that time, she provided the children with point and shoot cameras, set up classes in photography, and trained them to document the harsh reality of their daily lives. The result is the Oscar nominated documentary Born Into Brothels, a film that takes us inside the squalid brothels and allows us to see the world through the eyes of some of its most vulnerable residents, five girls and three boys, ages ten to fourteen. Shot in dazzling color using a digital camera, we get to know the children through their photos. There is Kochi, age 10, who is strong, resilient, tough, and sensitive. Avijit, age 12, seems to be the most talented of the group. He draws, paints, takes pictures and, through Briski's patient efforts, was able to obtain a passport to be a part of a photo-editing panel in Amsterdam. Shanti, age 11, is most eager to learn but is troubled and often feuds with her brother Manik. The others: Gour, Puja, Tapasi, and Suchitra all show a unique ability to find beauty in their ugly environment. The film documents Briski's uphill efforts to place the children in boarding schools to escape the cycle of poverty and exploitation. Some manage to find places in the schools but the biggest obstacle is shown to be the children's own mothers and guardians, often protective out of the sheer necessity for survival. Born Into Brothels is a testimony to the transforming power of art and of one individual's ability to make a difference. Showing the children's art to Western audiences has helped to raise money for the Sonagachi children's education. It may also serve to make people more aware of the potential talent of millions of other third world children who struggle daily for existence on the streets, the orphanages, and the refugee camps of our teeming world.

Reviewed by rgwright1 10 / 10 / 10

Deeply compelling personal film

This is a beautifully conceived and directed film. I knew little about the red light district of Calcutta and certainly nothing of the amazing children whose photographs are not only dramatic but also a tool of empowerment, albeit not entirely successful. One of the best documentaries of 2004. There certainly have been several excellent movies about the misery and hopeless nature of life in red light districts throughout the world, particularly southeast Asia. But this film's decision to focus on the children who not only are born in the brothels, but essentially live their entire lives within this damp and dismal walls. Director/photographer Zana Briski is to commended for bringing this to light. Several of my friends had deep empathy for her frustrating experiences with the Indian bureaucracy as she tries to get the children's art work noticed. Great film.

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