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City of lost children: (l-r) subject and director Briski in Born Into Brothels.

The I Behind the Camera
By Ann Morrow

Born Into Brothels
Directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman

Winner of this year’s Acad-emy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Born Into Brothels follows the progress of Zana Briski, a New York-based photojournalist, as she tries to rescue several kids in Sonagachi, a brutal red-light district in Calcutta. Briski lived in Calcutta for several years documenting the experiences of prostitutes; while doing so, she became close to many of their kids. Most of them, boys and girls between 10 and 14, are used as slave labor.

Briski’s involvement starts when she gives seven of them cameras so they can record images of their lives for themselves. Impressed with the results, she then organizes them into a photography class, in the hope that giving them a skill and the self-esteem that goes along with it will help the kids to avoid the doom of becoming prostitutes, pimps, and drug addicts just like their parents.

Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman examine the abject squalor of Sonagachi and the harshness of the kids’ lives in momentary and nonjudgmental increments. Foregoing any social analysis, the filmmakers concentrate on the children’s vivid, effusive personalities and their penetrating photographs (those that are shown onscreen are surprisingly beautiful and skillful). But Briski realizes that getting their photos into exhibits and auctions will not be enough to change their fate. After explaining that she is not a social worker, she embarks on a mission to get the kids a real education. Since they are the children of criminals, the mission is nearly hopeless, as well as being dauntingly labor-intensive.

Despite the grim realties of the story—talented Avijit, who discusses his painting and picture-taking with the articulation of poet, loses interest in an important photo competition after his mother is burned to death—Born Into Brothels emphasizes the joyful over the tragic. On the way back from a bus trip to the beach, the young shutterbugs burst out dancing in the aisle, a sequence that’s captured with footage so grainy and washed-out it appears like a dream.

The film’s impromptu style works well for capturing the spontaneity of the kids, but this artily detached approach is ultimately frustrating, especially when it comes to Briski, who is as much the film’s subject as the kids are. Born into Brothels would be even stronger if her heroic involvement were given more attention than the impressionistic narrative allows.

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