Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Born into Brothels

Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Academy Award-Winning Documentary Showing at Human Rights Watch Festival

When British photographer Zana Briski ventured to Calcutta, her original plan was merely to document the day-to-day lives of prostitutes working the seamy maze of back alleys scattered around the city's red light district. But she decided to alter her plans considerably soon after she was touched by the unfortunate street urchins residing in the whorehouses there.
For though most of the hardened hookers had long-since lost hope and had resigned themselves to their second-class status, Briski was surprised to discover that the women's ostracized, young offspring still harbored innocent dreams of one day escaping the squalor of the slums and rising above their inherited, lowly station. So, she summoned Ross Kauffman to India, asking her friend to videotape the heartbreaking plight of these underage social pariahs.
I doubt that either of the first-time filmmakers expected to get so close to their subjects, abandoning the impersonal role normally assumed by journalists to become emotionally-involved as surrogate parents in an often impassioned attempt to rescue the kids from their desperate straits. The upshot of their rewarding work was not only the soul satisfaction of knowing that they had made a profound difference in these children's lives, but in professional recognition, too, as their inspirational movie chronicling that unselfish effort won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2005.
Born Into Brothels, showing at the Human Rights Watch Festival in Manhattan on June 18th, [http://www.hrw.org/en/iff/born-brothels], is a marvelous hybrid almost impossible to categorize. With Briski serving primarily as cinematographer and Kauffman alternating in front of the camera as interviewer, mentor and social worker, the film focuses on eight waifs between the ages of 6 and 10 who the couple appear to have virtually adopted over the course of a three-year project which began in 2000.
Shy, sweet Kochi is interested in learning about computers and how to speak English. Manik, who lives in a small room with his older sister, Shanti, loves flying kites. Tapasi wants to be a teacher when she grows up. Puja is a tomboy with pet parrots. Her best friend, Gour is a sensitive boy who is curious about college. Suchitra is a girl who escapes all the insanity on a rooftop while Avijit is an amateur artist already showing much promise.
Ordinary kids, stuck in slums teeming not only with the skin trade, but with poverty, vermin, disease, narcotics, alcohol and addiction. Since most can't afford to attend school, their futures look just as bleak as their jaded, ill-fated mothers'. Recognizing the children's potential, Briski ends-up serving as their tireless, outspoken advocate, raising money for their education.
Meanwhile, she equips each of her charges with a 35mm cameras to snap some stills of their bleak surroundings. Given their natural curiosity and easy access to areas of illegal activity, the streets, the brothels, the drug dens, the pictures yield an alternately enchanting and unsettling kids' eye view of Calcutta's lowest common denominator.
Professionally-matted and framed, the photographs subsequently find their way to a fancy Sotheby's auction a world away. One might think that the resulting infusion of cash would be a one-way ticket out of their godforsaken hellhole for our rag-tag gang of amateur shutterbugs.
But not so fast, Kimosabe, because India has a strictly-enforced caste system and money alone can't cleanse an untouchable. And the country has create a maze of bureaucratic red tape to negotiate, calling for birth certificates, HIV tests and so forth. Plus, some of the prostitutes resent having their progeny whisked away, even if it is to an upscale boarding school.
Briski's admirable persistence pays off, though no mention is made of the prospects for the thousands of orphans not lucky enough to have her in their corner. Despite all of Born into Brothels earnestness, in the end, one can't help but wonder exactly what it was you’ve just watched. A hard-hitting expose'? Voyeuristic slumming? A touching, true tale of triumph, against all odds? A self-aggrandizing, vanity bio-pic? Or some new type of reality flick, Survivor: Calcutta?
How about, all of the above.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for profanity.
(In English and Bengali with subtitles)
Running time: 85 minutes
Distributor: ThinkFilm

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