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Admist the apparent growing prosperity of India, there is a dark underbelly of poverty of another side of the nation that is little known. This film is a chronicle of filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's efforts to show that world of Calcutta's red light district. To do that, they inspired a special group of children of the prostitutes of the area to photograph the most reluctant subjects of it. As the kids excel in their new found art, the filmmakers struggle to help them have a chance for a better life away from the miserable poverty that threatens to crush their dreams. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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