Movie Review
Born into Brothels


2004

Director: Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski
Cast: The Children of Calcutta
B-


orn into Brothels is less a portrait of the Red Light District of Calcutta than it is a study of the innocence that resides within it, namely the children of the district. The miraculous thing about them is their playfulness in the face of overwhelming adversity and their brilliance as artists and photographers. Yet the true tragedy here, beyond the already apparent hardships of life inside the brothels, is that these talented children seem regrettably doomed to a life of prostitution.

The film is sparingly narrated by Zana Briski, a photographer who initially set out to capture the illegal activity of the district. As she soon discovers, the corruption tends to disappear whenever cameras are present. So she decides to hand over the duty of capturing the true nature of the area to the ever-present children who always appeared the most curious about her presence there. Surprisingly, the children demonstrate that not only are they far better at penetrating the inner workings of the district but they possess a natural talent for photography.

Zanaís purposes for being in Calcutta shift from merely documenting the area to teaching photography classes to these children and making it her duty to attempt to get them out of their present environment. Eventually, she submits their work in exhibitions in America, and they win awards, yet they still remain stuck where they are. Zana takes steps toward getting them into various boarding schools but sheís halted by bureaucratic paperwork that seems designed to lead her in circles. Every time we feel as though the children will escape their dire surroundings, the brothels suck them back in.

Certainly the film is worthy of admiration, but throughout I found it difficult to really become absorbed within it. While the filmís concept is thoroughly interesting and its subjects exceptionally fascinating, it feels somehow slight and a bit rushed. More than anything else, this results from the filmmakerís decision to cram a wealth of information and an excess of characters into a scant 85 minutes. Usually films fail when they overstay their welcome, but here is one that would greatly benefit from a severe lengthening.

I wanted to know each of these children on an individual basis, but with only one did I connect on more than a visceral level. Avijit, aside from being a truly gifted artist, has a certain sorrowful expression that invokes more than just pity. Since the film weighs its focus a bit more on Avijit, we tend to single him out. We donít expect (though we certainly hope) all the children to make it out of the brothels, but with Avijit it becomes almost imperative that he escapes.

Yet Zanaís attempts to secure him a passport simply to travel to the Netherlands for an exhibition of his work are hindered again and again. His chances become bleak and Zana detects a change in his mood. His indifference increases and he becomes far less present in the group, missing some of his photography classes. Zana knows things have hit a critical point with Avijit, so she pushes even harder to bring him out of Calcutta. It is the most emotionally engaging thread of the film.

Yet, if I had to lob one more mild criticism at the film it would be that the district itself feels almost arbitrary in all this. True, itís the motivating force behind the childrenís desire to find success, but the film brushes by it. I never felt like I got a thorough enough depiction of the area and whatever destitution these children faced on a daily basis was left to my imagination (yes, they live in filthy, crammed rooms but what goes on outside their living spaces?)

Perhaps hinting at their poverty without going into detail was a wise decision that saved the film from being slightly condescending and distanced from its subjects (it doesnít resort to the whole ďvoice of GodĒ narration.) Since itís less about their surroundings and more about their hopes and dreams, we engage the material on a far more personal level. But I still wouldíve liked to explore the area a bit more than I was allowed.

None of this stops Born into Brothels from being a good film, or even an Oscar-worthy one (on Sunday, it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.) Itís sure to appeal to the type of audience already willing to see it. And aside from Touching the Void and the Five Obstructions (if you include that film in the same category) itís one of the stronger documentaries of the year. But I canít help feeling that with a little more time, it couldíve been something a lot better.



By: Dave Micevic
2005-03-04
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