Born Into Brothels

A documentary about children living in Calcutta’s red light district may sound shifty and questionable at first. After all, how many more depictions of poverty in Third World cities (most notoriously, Calcutta) made by mystified and morally aggrieved Westerners can we take? These depictions, as they’ve accumulated in our popular media over the years, have favored sensationalism over intelligence, hence perpetuating Western audiences’ complacent alienation from the Third World–that convenient label we’ve learned to associate with “lesser, poorer” places far away.

The peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America have been traditionally depicted in Hollywood features and TV news segments as too exotically poor for Western comprehension, reducing their identity as fodder for either amusement (“The Gods Must Be Crazy”) or sentimentalism (“City of Joy”). Thankfully, the tide has turned as “Born Into Brothels,” the new documentary by New York-based Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman so vividly proves.

Credit the digital- and internet-propelled leap of the past decade for allowing people to connect with the world’s far-flung corners, developing first-hand relationships with cultures once inaccessible to a commoner. New media has also allowed visual artists to shoot and disseminate their work in ways heretofore inconceivable and budding artists to discover talents they never knew they had. “Born Into Brothels” beautifully illustrates the latter as a group of bright-eyed children, all of whose mothers work “on the line” in Calcutta’s sex trade, learn the fundamentals of photography from Briski herself, a photojournalist. The lessons set off a creative spark among the children, all of whose photographs reveal a vibrancy and an urgent desire for expression unsullied by the grimness of their daily lives.

These photographs are windows through which we are shown the children’s world. In spite of the poverty underscoring their images, we amaze at the innocence and vitality foregrounding them. In that sense, “Brothels” isn’t a study of poverty but an affirmation of the promise of youth. It is also a testament to Briski’s own bravery as she takes on Calcutta’s horrifying bureaucracy to arrange for an education for the children — a permanent escape from prostitution. Even more poignant is the willingness of a few of the children’s parents to share in Briski’s efforts, pointing to a society which, though mired in an oppressive social system, has the presience to imagine a better future for itself. “Brothels” is an absorbing journey over gritty social terrain, driven by a fierce sense of purpose. This is documentary activism at its most galvanized, charged with action and, while often emotional, never bogged down with dewy-eyed sentimentalism.

The fact that “Brothels” — and other recent docs and fictions like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “In This World” and “Maria Full of Grace” — were ever conceived and produced is most exciting of all. There are certainly many downsides to globalization (2003’s “The Corporation” is a bracing eye-opener), but the bridging together of disparate cultures, and the recognition that there are no exotic realities but one reality that we all share are ideals engendered as much out of newly emerging technologies as our newly globalized worldview. The movies born of these ideals are enough to make me believe there’s hope in humanity yet.

Grade: A-

Written/Directed by: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman
Cast: Kochi, Avijit Halder, Shanti Das


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