Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (2004) Poster

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Don't miss this inspiring jewel of a film that concretely gives hope and shows us life through the photography and vivacity of children, and shows what a huge difference one person can make. 10 out of 10 st
Dilip Barman14 April 2004
Today I saw "Born into Brothels" at day 3 of 4 of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Even with another day left, I have some confidence that this will be the film I most appreciated seeing at this festival, and in fact is one of the most inspiring films I have seen in a long time. Directors and producers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman also hosted a question and answer session after the film, and I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Zana Briski, whose intimate involvement in this film and her selfless efforts have given me tremendous admiration for what she does; as I said in the Q&A period, if we had a few more people like her, the world would be a vastly better place for all of us.

Ms. Briski is an established photographer and now first time director who began in 1997 to explore the lives of sex workers in Calcutta's red-light district, Sonagachi, where over 7000 women and (disgustingly sadly) girls are prostitutes. In order to better understand them, Zana lived for months at a time with them, and the children quickly befriended her. The children were curious to try their hands at taking pictures, and Zana helped to empower them and see the world through their eyes by teaching them photography and acquiring point-and-shoot 35mm film cameras for them, as well as helping them to critique and edit their pictures.

The resulting pictures that the children took between the years 2000 and 2003 are striking. Some of the children clearly have innate talent in composition and artistry (see, for example, shot 17 "Girl on a Roof" or 14 "Horse", at the Kids with Cameras site mentioned at the bottom of my review), and all of them have works portraying the vitality of life so much so that Zana helped get one child invited to be part of a children's jury at a World Press Photo Foundation photo exhibit in Amsterdam in 2002, and for him to actually attend.

Zana admits in the film that she is not a social worker, but wanted very much to help the boys and girls, for otherwise their future was a dismal one lacking hope beyond prostitution, drugs, pimping, and crime. She organized a photo exhibit in a Calcutta bookstore, garnering Zana's project and the individual children television and newspaper coverage. Zana has recently set up an organization, Kids with Cameras, that sells their prints to raise money for them, with 100% of the profits going to them. Twelve of these prints were the ones chosen for the 2003 "Amnesty International" calendar, and she even exhibited and auctioned the children's work at Sotheby's. She has helped to get several of the children into good boarding schools and recently helped a few to get email access and English lessons.

The film itself is technically beautiful, with a melange of colors, sounds, and activity, centered on the children but also including others. The filmmakers in no way hide the unsavory life in Sonagachi, including disturbing cursing against the children, hopelessness of being able to in any way be involved in normal society, having no governmental support, facing tremendous bureaucracy to get anything changed even with Ms. Briski's help, and the total lack of police investigation or protection as painfully brought to light when one child's mother is killed by a pimp in a "kitchen fire". In making the film, Mr. Kauffman and Ms. Briski effectively used fast camera pans, red overtints, and grainy film at times to portray an environment where participants would not want to be carefully filmed. They could have made this a sad and detailed documentary about this red light slum, but instead chose to recognize its nature but focus on the innocence of the children and hope that could be offered them.

If you have the opportunity to see this film at a festival, don't miss it. I understand that HBO/Cinemax may be distributing the film as well to afford a much wider audience. It is a heartwarming film that left me with a jumble of emotions - hopefulness and hopelessness; incredulity and shock at human nature combined with tremendous admiration at the selflessness and difference that one person can make; sadness at the overwhelming poverty, filth, and insouciance of a society that lets a community like Songagachi exist and yet tremendous happiness at the children's glee in living their lives with innocent play and their ambition to move out of the community. For the quality and uniqueness of the film, as well as the tremendous service that Zana Briski portrays, this film gets 10 stars out of 10 in my book. Don't miss this jewel of a film - and consider supporting the work that goes on.

--Dilip Barman April 3, 2004
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A testimony to the transforming power of art
Howard Schumann28 February 2005
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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Deeply compelling personal film
rgwright123 September 2004
This is a beautifully conceived and directed film. I knew little about the red light district of Calcutta and certainly nothing of the amazing children whose photographs are not only dramatic but also a tool of empowerment, albeit not entirely successful. One of the best documentaries of 2004. There certainly have been several excellent movies about the misery and hopeless nature of life in red light districts throughout the world, particularly southeast Asia. But this film's decision to focus on the children who not only are born in the brothels, but essentially live their entire lives within this damp and dismal walls. Director/photographer Zana Briski is to commended for bringing this to light. Several of my friends had deep empathy for her frustrating experiences with the Indian bureaucracy as she tries to get the children's art work noticed. Great film.
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An excellent idea.
giomanombre26 September 2005
There needs to be more uplifting movies like this one. Truly inspirational and enlightening. People have questioned the motives of the director or author - but all I can say is I don't even care if she did it all for the money. If she did, then capitalism is working here. Those who are complaining probably aren't doing anything to help those kids.

With the proliferation of internet porn and sex tourism, it is good thing for people to see a documentary such as this. It is just good material to put into people's heads compared to the nasty stuff that is out there. To me it shows that even in the depths of human degradation and despair there could be hope in a corrupt world. That one person, if they could change a few lives for the better, for whatever motivation, it is a good thing and should be an inspiration for us all.

Even in these worst human conditions these beautiful kids just shine out full of hope and potential. If you want to see a true-life story documentary where lives are changed for the better, than watch this one.
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Fabulous Film
tgc000005 April 2004
We saw this film at the Cleveland International Film Festival and it was one of the absolute best of the 85 films at the festival.

This film is a documentary, made by a photographer, Zara Briski, who lived in the brothels of Calcutta and befriended the children of the women of the brothels.

In the film, Zara teaches the children photography by giving them each a point-and-shoot cameras and the children, between ages 10-12, compose and shoot some amazing photographs.

Zara tries to raise money to get the children into private schools and get them out of the brothels where the are destined to follow the path of their parents as prostitutes or drug dealers.

This is an amazingly rich documentary like none you have ever seen. It touches the lives of these children so personally, and is shot so intimately, that you feel like you are right there with them.

I commend the film-makers for completing this moving and important piece of work.
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Oh Calcutta!
jotix10019 February 2006
The film makers of this documentary take the viewer into areas that would have been off limits to anyone wanting to explore the life of the children of some Calcutta prostitutes. About ten children are showcased in the film as one of the directors of the documentary, Zana Briski, involves the children in something positive as she teaches them how to use the camera in capturing the world around them.

In gaining the children's confidence, they, in turn, tell us about how they see life in that hostile environment. Most of the girls shown in the film would probably end up in the same situation their mothers went through, as it appears life for them is a vicious circle in which there is no escape. For the boys, in spite of the natural talent shown as they take pictures, the mean streets of Calcutta don't promise much either.

As a documentary, Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman, show us how they were able to give the children a different way to look at life, but one wonders what has happened after they finished their work. Are these young girls and boys better off because this experience, or did they go back to the only way of life they knew about?

"Born into Brothels" is a sad commentary on our society at large, because where there is poverty, as it's the case in Calcutta, women will resort into the kind of life where they can get by without any education or skills. These women are actually the victims of a system that penalizes them for just being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Let's hope Ms. Briski and Mr. Kaufamn were able to instill in these young girls and boys the idea of looking for something better in their lives if they escape the poor surroundings in which they were born into.
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Moving but flawed Documentary
jotyler654 March 2005
It would certainly take a filmmaker of much self-consciousness, something which Zana Briski certainly possesses, to make this film the way she has. Having met with uncooperative roadblocks to shooting a documentary about sex-workers and their families within the squalid confines of Calcutta's red-light district, Briski states early on that she decides to have the children themselves tell their story by supplying them with automatic cameras to use in their own personal ways. The film, however, ultimately becomes an account of one outsider's attempt to save these children from their miserable fates - poverty and sexual abuse. With the children's sex-worker mothers and families, many of whom have apparently spent generations in the district with no escape in sight, used as background elements, Briski focuses solely on the children, entering them into an informal photography seminar where they gather to share contact sheets of their pictures and discuss the problems of shooting amidst uncooperative and hostile subjects and why certain pictures work and why some don't. Thankfully, Briski also interviews the children, and while it's not clear they understand her theories on picture composition, they are, despite being denied education and living amidst fairly brutal conditions of abuse, poverty and indentured servitude, very perceptive and wise to the unfortunate conditions in which they live, their prospects and possess an awareness of the possibilities of life outside of the district. Briski becomes further involved with the children by trying to enter them into school, though most will not accept them because they are the children of sex workers. Indeed, it is the indifference of Indian authorities to the children's plight as much as the abuse they receive from their depraved parents that shocks the viewer. Briski, with some help from some photographic arts people in the United States and Amnesty International, is able to use the children's pictures as a commercial vehicle to raise money to enable them to enroll in a private boarding school (the kids are well aware that education is their only way out of the brothels). Here, Briski's movement somewhat takes over the movie from her subjects, proving how futile western notions of compassionate aid often are to endemic and grave third-world situations like we witness here. This is driven home when of the kids accepted into the boarding school, only one eventually remains because of the economic pressures put upon their families in which the children essentially act as indentured servants, performing household tasks day and night and odd jobs for additional income. So, while the film becomes a parade for Briski's noble cause, I would have liked to have seen more background and interaction between the children and their surroundings, other than simply as child photographers who have been given a brief and, for most of them, fleeting reprieve from their depraved surroundings.
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Documentary at its best
ncbrian23 March 2005
I often disagree with the academy award nominations. It's usually too political to nominate the best movies and performances of the year. Born Into Brothels is an exception, it was nominated and won! The only mistake was not nominating it for best picture.

Brothels is the story of a woman, Zana Briski, who traveled to Calcutta to photograph the brothels. She fell in love with the children and began teaching them photography. The movie is seen through their eyes.

The result is extraordinary in so many ways. Calcutta's red light district is interesting in and of itself. The setting is the first extraordinary feature. The filming makes you feel like you are there. Director Ross Kauffman captures the feeling of being trapped in dark allies with a dark future. Without a director commentary running though the film, you're able to see it all by the way it's been directed. The dark past and future of these families is presented in a beautiful and horrific way.

Secondly, the children are lovable. The story focuses on 8 or 9 children of prostitutes. Each one is unique. Some are incredibly funny, others serious, some are troubled, and at least one has an undeniable talent for photography. You'll leave the theater feeling like you know them.

This is documentary film at its best. It transports us to another country and makes us love the troubled children. What was troubling to me was having to leave the theater never to see these troubled children again. Putting aside the incredible movie-making abilities of these creators, Zana Briski is a true hero.
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The difference of One
David Ferguson26 February 2005
Greetings again from the darkness. Rarely does a documentary attract much of an audience ... that is unless it is one of the slanted visions of Michael Moore. Realizing not many will see "Brothels" leaves me feeling both saddened and anxious. What a remarkable story that Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman have brought to our world. The kids will capture your heart within the first few moments of the film. Although the story is definitely the kids, the hero is Ms. Briski. Her tireless efforts to give them hope and a way out should be enough motivation for each of us to realize we can make a difference in the world. This film pulls no punches in showing us the underbelly of one of Calcutta's red light districts and how it so impacts these families. The girls are resigned to the fact that it is their future. The boys are helpless to save their friends. Enter Ms. Briski with cameras in tow. You will feel so energized watching the children explore and capture their world through a lens. The photos are nothing short of stunning and were a hit at the World Festival a couple of years ago. Although not successful in saving them all, Ms. Briski did make a difference and provides a guiding light to us all.
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A total disregard for local support systems
hemal_triv27 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I was born and raised in India and when I heard of Born into Brothels I was very curious to know what the film was all about. And my biggest criticism of the film is the film's gross misrepresentation of the situations and complete disregard for the local support systems.

There are a lot of local NGOs in Sonagachi and other red light areas in Kolkota who work for the betterment of living conditions there. They have been there for years and have done real grassroots work in India. Work which often goes unnoticed by the western media!

In fact Zana Briski received a lot of help from local NGOs. Local NGOs helped her with access, with the system and with some simple day to day jobs. But in her film she did not acknowledge a single local NGO. She portrayed herself as a Messiah on a mission to eradicate misery and hopelessness from these kids' lives. Her portrayal was absolute and self-propagandizing, not to mention contrived and cheesy. In her film she completely disregarded the social welfare system, although fractured but functioning, already in place.

Yes, the kids living Sonagachi don't have many opportunities, don't have a bright future and don't have the best living circumstances. But their lives are not as dark and hopeless as portrayed in the film. There are helping hands and there are people dedicated to the betterment of the living conditions. Indian government supports a lot of these local NGOs, India has free public education and health-care system. In Kolkota itself there are about 3000 registered NGOs supported both by Indian government and private funds. Yes there are rots in the system, but tell me one system that is really perfect.

But why would Zana Briski and Ross Kaufmann acknowledge these local efforts? They are filmmakers, they want drama, they want sensation. They want that classic underdog story. They want the story which the Western media would love, adore and accolade. They are not there to help the kids, but are there to help themselves.

Yes the film is beautifully made, but it is not really a documentary. It is not a fair and objective representation of the reality, which in mind ideally a documentary should be. But rather it is self-serving, westernized, and highly prejudiced manipulation of the reality.
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An incredible and meaningful experience
kurtz-116 December 2004
This film should be seen by everyone who has any sense of what the world is and can be if we give our attention and empathy to make it a better place --in the background I hear the greed and anger of Donald Trump and it is so jarring (and sad) and disturbing is absolutely amazing the dedication and caring of Zana Briski an Ross Kauffman and their attempt to support and change the destinies of these poor unfortunate children who are doomed to a life of humiliation, poverty and human degradation. It is uplifting to know that there are people who care --who are not driven by greed and avarice-- who will try , no matter what the odds are, no matter what are the bureaucratic difficulties to help and support these poor unfortunate children .. I know that I have been immensely moved by this film and what is going on in a place like the red light district of Calcutta and will do what I can to make some impact with these unfortunate children in all of the various venues that these people have chosen to work in and do these miraculous things that are they are doing.
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Art is the Common Denominator
gradyharp2 November 2005
BORN INTO BROTHELS won the Academy Award for documentaries: it should have also won the Humanitarian Award. Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman have not only created a captivating film about the plight and survival instincts of a group of eight children who were born to prostitutes in the red light district of Calcutta: they have given us a visual montage of the images captured by these children, through the cameras as lovingly instructed by Briski, that look back at the environment in which they are living.

Without being the least bit preachy, Briski and Kauffman entered the infamous red light district, moved in so as not to seem voyeurs, and while Briski continued her long and successful portfolio of the women who ply their wares as the only means to overcome poverty, they discovered that the children of the prostitutes were curious, bright, and desirous of learning the magic the camera can produce. We meet each of the eight children (three boys and five girls), learn the background and outlook of each and then watch as they embrace photography. Their photographs are so fine and their futures so grim that Briski and Kauffman pledge themselves to find paths of escape from their doomed state. Briski works to place them in boarding schools and enters their photographs in an international Press Group exhibition in Amsterdam. The children have such pride and personal growth that they are thrilled when on boy is selected to represent them at the exhibition in Amsterdam. Briski also arranges for exhibitions of the photographs, both internationally and locally so that all of the children can view their art in a respected place. Yet after elevating the future outlook of these eight children we see that only a few continue to have bright futures: the shame of their social caste and the mark of their 'criminal' parents is stamped on them forever. Some escape, others join the line.

The photography is splendid, rich in color and subject matter, and the video camera following Briski through the squalid red light district, pausing to hear abusive mothers and drugged fathers deny their children passage into a better life, hearing the wisdom of the elders who desire something more for these children, captures a world few know. Devoted as Briski and Kauffman are to their dream, they remain realistic and document an element of life in a third world country that is illuminating.

This is a touching film without being maudlin, beautiful without ignoring reality. In English and with subtitles for the children's commentary. Highly Recommended for all viewers. Grady Harp
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Sorry to say i was disappointed
bubsy-33 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I was really looking forward to seeing Born Into Brothels. However, after seeing it, I must say that I was disappointed. It's a good movie, but in my opinion certainly not worthy of the "Best Documentary" Oscar (that, I think, should have gone to Tupac Resurrection and I think the Best Picture Oscar should have gone to Hotel Rwanda which wasn't even nominated!) Documentaries, in my opinion, need to capture their audience in the first couple of minutes. They should be like essays, with an opening statement showing what is going to be presented afterward and why. Born Into Brothels doesn't do this. It begins as a messy composition of the comments of several children. The story itself is quite good. But the cinematography is my main complaint. The camera is always either in close up or closer up. It zooms in on the children's faces so that only 2/3 of the face is seen. In street scenes, the camera is jumping all over the place or speeding down the road in a total blur. I never got to really see or understand the environment that these children live in. The sole exception was the beginning of the beach scene. Overall, I found the movie a narcissistic glorification of Zana Briski who attempted to "save" some of these children from their horrible fate. But I never got to really know the children and what they REALLY thought and felt and experienced and I think that's what Zana Briski missed when she set off on her mission. Perhaps that's why the majority of the children don't end up "saved". One of the child photographers who ends up going to a fine school in India at one point in the movie comments about how wonderfully a photo captured feeling. I only wish he were in charge of making the film.
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Less a documentary than a vanity project
Andela8 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I commend Zana Briski for wanting to help these children. I believe she was moved by what she saw and did the best she could with the tools available to her. As she said herself, she is neither social worker nor teacher. She is not a native speaker of the language nor member of the culture. As such she brings her own values and assumptions to the table when trying to help the children, but I don't think that's something to criticize her for.

However the movie she made documenting her attempt to help these children was not effective as a documentary. We never get much of a feel for the kids, and only a cursory glimpse into what their lives are truly like. We see a few scenes of a woman verbally abusing a child but it's not clear why she's yelling. We're told rather than shown that their world is unpleasant, but from what we see on screen it doesn't seem all that bad. The children are almost always laughing and happy. Their parents seem to love them. Occasionally we see one scrubbing out a pot or getting a spanking. I would've loved to know more about these kids, their families and their lives, but what we mostly see are Briski's efforts to get them an education, which are commendable but place this film in the category of a feel-good (for Briski) vanity project rather than a work that truly shows us what the children's lives are like. Briski misses the mark by focusing on the two least interesting parts of the story, herself and the photography lessons, and relegating the most fascinating, the kids and their environment, to a relative sidebar.

The most telling scene in the film was when Briski learns that Ayvajit's mother has been burned to death by her pimp. The opportunities here for a visceral emotional punch are astounding, but what we get are a few seconds of Briski shaking her head and saying, "How sad." This sentiment sums up the shallowness of this film. By focusing on Briski and her efforts, we get an intellectual exercise instead of one that grabs us in the guts and makes us feel, as much as we can in our comfortable chairs from half a world away, what it is like to be born into a brothel.
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Problems with Born into Brothels
khwangbo23 March 2005
I saw BIB last night. I expected to love it, since it had won the Oscar and I am a documentary filmmaker. I thought it was a well-crafted documentary, but there was a surprising "ick" factor to the film for me. First, I was turned off by Zana Briski's personality...the way she was talking to the school officials. She seemed self-conscious in her role as the kids' advocate...she sounded stilted, preachy and thus, ineffective. I also didn't like the way she imposed a solution on the kids, a solution that worked for her but not for them. The photography class sounded like a "cool" thing that she could tell her liberal artsy friends about back in England, but was probably less helpful to the kids than social work, a free lunch program or academic tutoring. Also her solution was for the girls to go to a boarding school "to get them away from all this." I thought that showed a lack of understanding about the situation the girls were in. How could they succeed in a boarding school when they probably weren't academically ready? How could they succeed without emotional support, separated from their families? How could their mothers be expected to accept being separated from their daughters? It bothered me the way that the school officials kept telling Avyjit, the brightest and most talented boy, that he would have to work hard and improve his grades. No wonder Avyjit was turned off. How is he supposed to improve his grades when he hasn't had enough structure in his life to develop good study habits? The whole photography project smacked of some well-intended idea by some liberals who thought, "wouldn't it be cool if we gave cameras to a bunch of street urchins and they came up with cool photos? We could do an art show and other do-gooders would think we were cool!" I'm sure Zana Briski intended to help the children and she did help a few, but why did she set out to help so few to begin with? I keep trying to say nice things about the film and end up criticizing it again. It seemed almost like a reality show...pick seven street urchins and shower them with amazing opportunities. Pour tons and tons of resources into a few kids, then make a film about it. Despite dangling the opportunities in the kids faces, more than half of them did not see their lives improve. It was a well-crafted film which educated many people about the plight of these children. I just hope that other people who know more about social work than these filmmakers do, will be able to really help these children. Maybe I will since I have seen this movie.
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rosario6228825 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
This isn't a flawed documentary at all. The children are telling their stories and the filmmaker is telling her's as well. She has to interject at times to help everything come together but if you go back you'll see that 60% of the camera time was spent on the children telling their tales. Yes the last part became about how Zana desperately tried to get them out of the Sonagachi but that's because this was the part the children couldn't tell. They weren't there for all of it and so Zana had to tell that part. I've been on this site for a number of years and it still amazes me how people can find the tiniest little detail and spend all day judging and griping. WOW.
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Not Just Pretty Babies
cinelyze23 December 2006
"Born Into Brothels," which won the 2004 Sundance Audience Award and was nominated for an Academy Award, explores the lives of eight children born in Calcutta's Sonagachi red light district, where approximately 7,000 women and girls work as prostitutes.

Initially, independent photographer Zana Briski sought to document this universe, where "everything is illegal," in her still work. But her agenda changed when she began living among the district's disenfranchised families and entered their lives, specifically the lives of the children with whom she clearly fell in love. Rather than present their world through her own perspective, Briski provided the children with inexpensive, point-and-shoot 35mm cameras and taught them how to use them. It is from the images the children captured, and the experiences they had in doing so, that the film's drama and emotion unfold.

Opening with an introduction of its eight subjects (both male and female, aged ten to twelve) and the dismally hopeless, harsh reality of their lives, "Born Into Brothels" follows the children as they wander, cameras in hand, through the streets of Calcutta. These scenes, and those where Briski teaches them some of the fundamentals of photography, such as framing and composition, are intercut with their powerful stills. Credit goes to Briski and co- director Ross Kauffman for allowing the children's' inner lives to be revealed by their own still photos, many of which are a luminous contrast to their stark, demeaning existence at the brothels.

Briski says there is "no logical or rational reason" she invests herself so completely in this endeavor, but she is much more transparent than she lets on. While she is no Mother Teresa, Briski is an educated, independent woman who clearly yearns to imbue her subjects with a similar sense of self, as well as the means to achieve it. To that end, she works tirelessly to try to rescue these youngsters from their grim surroundings and perhaps even grimmer futures, and seeks some educational facility that will accept them. Given the setting, the task is not as easy as it sounds.

Despite the progress made in recent years toward the development of democracy in India, it is still in many respects a third-world country, a bureaucratic nightmare with an inbred class system which even the most devout westerners cannot overcome. As one nun tells Briski when the filmmaker seeks her help in locating a school for the children, "nobody will take them" because they are the offspring of prostitutes.

Briski's despair, however, is not matched by her students. While they know there is "no opportunity without education," they possess a tangible exuberance for life, despite their presumed destiny of joining "the line" of prostitutes and "mean men" who came before them. They may not like it but, dreams notwithstanding, they accept it as their fate.

Briski's unflagging energy propels her ever further toward her goal of helping these most deserving children, and ever deeper into the swarm of confusion that governs India's teeming masses. Through the ups and downs of this journey of the spirit that pulls us in many complex, emotional directions, we are compelled to ride it out with her and her charges because, as one of the more talented and promising of the children reminds us, "it is the truth." Seeing it may not make us as wise as this child, but it does reinforce our faith that, even in a bafflingly troubled world, one person can make a difference.
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Heartbreaking yet necessary
rfsavio15 May 2006
This excellent documentary details the plight of children who are born into adverse conditions and are treated little better than animals by their so-called family. The hopelessness of their situation is reflected in their eyes and their demeanor of despair at their day to day situation.

When the children are exposed to the opportunity to record their impressions of life on film, they open up, at first hesitantly, to the chance to show others how life appears to them. Because of caring and confidence building, the children achieve great things YET, because of their families and the superstitions reinforced by ignorance, the bright spark that was initially ignited is sadly, for all but one or two of the children, extinguished and their return to the brothels, neglect and squalor of Calcutta and a future of abuse, neglect, crime and hopelessness is virtually assured.

This film is a call to action. We can not all dash to Calcutta to rescue the children but it is a call to look in our own areas and do something to rescue the lost children of this world. If each of us would mentor or care for one of these souls, the problem would be well on the way to eradication. KUDOS to the film makers and the dedicated people who gave more than their all for these precious children.
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calusari-14 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This documentary is all the things that western reviewers/critics have been saying about it - moving, brave and intense. If you are looking for an objective, nonjudgmental portrayal of truth (as documentaries should be), however, you are going to be deeply disappointed.

In the film, incidents and characters from Sonagacchi, Calcutta are presented out of context. Judged and summarily dismissed. Editing was quite sly - with words being put into the mouths of the kids. And those omissions aren't even its biggest problems.

There are deeply interwoven underlying factors to Sonagacchi that a 2- hour documentary cannot possibly convey with any accuracy. Why pretend otherwise? Why the accolades for a job well done - when clearly it was not.

Who will document the squalor of the western inner-cities with the homeless and the disenfranchised; present the children living in poverty and neglect in the rural American south - abused and used just as viciously as the kids in Sonagacchi. Could a non-White "third world" film-maker make a documentary on the US or Europe (over a period of about two years, equipped with only minimal knowledge of the language and the culture) to pass moral judgment on the seedy underbelly of the "first" world? At least Calcutta has the excuse of poverty. What does the West have to say about its treatment of its own poor? Who is going to bring it to the theater nearest you? When Mary Antoinette said: "Give them cake", she was no more intellectually deficient than the self-righteous Ms. Briski. This documentary is an abomination. Myopic, sanctimonious and above all else irresponsible - catering to the western audience with the kind of emotional fodder that sells. Ergo, the wholly undeserving Oscar. Sometimes gimmicks do work!
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A vanity project with Zana Briski holding the mirror
crooked_spoons6 September 2009
Never has there been a more gross misuse of wording than in the title of this film. This is little more than a showcase of Briski's "forward thinking" self righteous presence and overrated photography. This woman taught a group of children, living in squalor and facing starvation how to use a camera. Yes, a C A M E R A! As if the ability to shoot nice little pictures was going to help them rise above their situation and do better for themselves. Tell me Zana, if one of said children decided to take up such a lovely would they get their pictures developed? How would they afford the film? The brothel/prostitution aspect is brought up very little. The very word "Brothel" was probably mentioned all of three times. The film doesn't delve into how the mothers ended up there, assault/battery, child prostitution or anything of substance.

This is about the nice white lady who rolled out of bed one day and decided to showcase her benevolent spirit. But what she gave them was nothing. A useless hobby that was forgotten by the time she boarded her plane back to New York. While she's sipping cocktails somewhere in Midtown Manhattan congratulating herself on her selfless deeds and how she's helped those poor little brown children, a 10yr old girl is probably having her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder...a 50 yr old man.
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Horrible unethical film that undermined kids lives while projecting white women as "iberator" (of brown kids from their brown moms)
alli19762 April 2011
This movie makes me cry, but not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. Briski and Kauffman represent the situation of sex workers' children in this poor Indian district in the most un-ethical and violent way possible -- by laying the blame at the heroic, unionized sex-worker moms that have managed to carve out a safe space for their families, under the kind of conditions that would beat any westerner down, and most reprehensibly, by using the families to raise themselves to be saints in the audiences' mind. In doing so they undermine the very children they supposedly want to help, and dupe Westerners whose only access to information like this is through mainstream /Oscar flicks. I second the advice of a viewer who urges audiences instead watch the film Tales of the Night Fairies, a more caring and truthful representation. Don't depend on my opinion here --- please paste into a search engine Born into Brothels, Praveen Swami, Seema Sirohi or Partha Banerjee to read incisive critique of the film by more knowledgeable folks - people who worked translating it, know the district, or report on the Indian Frontline's investigation of the filmmakers unethical behavior.

The fact that the Sonagachi Red Light District where Briski et al filmed is not only the focus of MANY hardworking aid organizations (which Briski edits out, one can only assume to portray herself as the only bright shining angel) but also a case studied globally for its successes preventing HIV infection, for how women established workers cooperatives collectively ensure their rights and safety (instead of being controlled by pimps), and strict community rules not to force anyone into prostitution... will astonish viewers who have seen the film. There is no way the filmmakers could not know this, or that these women began a trade union that has grown to 60,000 members far beyond this small district. In fact, the filmmakers treat these women as the cause of the children's problems, and recommend removal of the children from their families! That Briski is British, thus from India's the former colonial power, and that she recommends a removal policy without realizing that it repeats colonial violence done in other British colonies (such as the forcible kidnapping of aborigine children in Australia in 1911 by whiter skinned people who could not imagine indigenous people capable of bringing up children) makes me wonder if it might not be BRISKI, rather than the brothel kids, who has been neglected and denied a proper education.

Viewers need to know that an investigation by the Indian media Frontline showed that the film's most fundamental assumptions were false, particularly Briski's assertion that the children no education, or very little before she sent them to boarding school. In fact, ALL THE KIDS WERE GOING TO SCHOOL WHEN THE DOCUMENTARY WAS BEING MADE! It is a testament to Briski's own ignorance and misuse of rich white power that none of the cases in which she "removed" kids to boarding school have resulted in success or continuation. This is because the kids know what the sadly uneducated Briski cannot see, that their families are more than props in a gringa film. That Briski dupes Western audiences into misunderstanding the real issues in India's brothels, that she bathes in the limelight and accepts Academy Awards built on this exploitation, that she presents unethical hidden camera footage taken without these poor women's consent, that she so sneakily betrays these people who had nothing, but generously shared every single intimate part of their lives with this "savior" should alert us that somewhere, in England, children are growing up like Briski --- without being given the basic historical knowledge they so desperately need.

Lets make a film about Briski's home town, use hidden cameras to show her friends in the worst light, and give it Bollywood's biggest award so we can finally remove poor rich white filmmakers from their neglectful colonialist parents, and give them to caring Calcuttans who will see that they receive the uncensored education they so desperately need.

In all seriousness: This "research" would never have survived an ethics review board investigation, and suggests that we demand stronger accountability and oversight of filmmakers to ensure ethical treatment of their subjects, especially in places where people may not have access to enforcing such accountability.

A better use for this film, and one that I use in my undergraduate classes, is to have students FIRST read Partha Banerjee's letter to the American Film Academy about the film's lack of ethics, and then watch BitB. Students marvel that the Oscar ignored his plea and awarded this film! I'll keep a DVD of this film in my college collection of ethnocentric diatribe classics such as "Warrior Marks" and "Not without my daughter" (apologies to Gidget). Like those films it embodies Gayatri Spivack's observation that so much of what passes as Western humanitarianism is less about helping victims and more about the image of "White men saving brown women from brown men" (in this case White women "saving" brown kids from brown women).

Please, lets set up a humanitarian fund to provide history classes to the poor, abused children of Britain that, like Briski, are at risk of becoming narcissistic missionary filmmakers that exploit the third world. They should not be doomed to repeat the colonial mistakes of the past, simply because they have not listened well in history class.
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Talent can lift kids out of despair...sometimes
Jim Sorrells10 March 2005
Lots of films have depicted how childhood for many kids isn't exactly a warm, fuzzy experience. American photographer Zana Briskie moved into the red light district of Calcutta to study the lives of the prostitutes who live and work there. In the process, she became involved with the children of the prostitutes, literally BORN INTO BROTHELS. Even the grandmothers of some of these children were or still are prostitutes. There is a presumption that, at puberty, the little girls will follow in their mothers' footsteps and "join the line" and that the little boys will either pimp or sell drugs. This is not Walton's Mountain or the land of Ozzie and Harriet.

But then Briskie was inspired to give these kids cameras so they could photograph the world around them. We get to know eight or nine of them, their personalities, families, and homes, and most importantly their art. Some of the kids are serious beyond their years, others more playful. Some of the parents are supportive, others suspicious. One little girl is of Brahmin caste and lives well. Another must scrub the pots and pans of other prostitutes. All the photography is interesting, but the work of one little boy is clearly so good that he is invited to an international showing in Amsterdam.

It is clear that Briskie's intervention will be a stepping-stone out of the brothel for some of the kids, but not most. Patterns are hard to break. Is this encouraging or discouraging? Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
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Self promotion of the worst kind.
taking_the_stand2 October 2006
This is a shameless self promotion of the film maker using the subject matter, this important issue to promote herself. The film has nothing at all to do with children in the brothels but is rather about the film maker teaching poor kids how to use a camera. It is all about how she is trying to help the kids, how wonderful she is, how brave she is. She then show us the pictures that the kids she taught took and tell the audience how amazing the pictures are. At best these pictures are just mediocre at worst they are simply bad. This film could have been about poor kids anywhere and have nothing to do with the issue it exploit in the title.
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Confusion and mis-interpretation due to poor editing
bidochon3 June 2005
Here is an extract from an in-depth and important article written about this movie. There's a strong confusion made by the audience due to the way the filmmakers decided to edit the movie. As a movie, the story is moving, but there's a strong lie being told and these kids are actually sometimes now living in worse conditions that at the time of the film.

Partha Banerjee worked on the film as an interpreter. Upon seeing the final product, and then hearing that the film had won a nomination for Best Documentary from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, the Oscar award people), Mr. Banerjee wrote a letter to AMPAS explaining why the film should not be so recognized. His letter addresses some of the questions raised by the film. In it, he writes,

…I take issues with the often-explicit presumption by both the filmmakers and the U.S. media personalities (including the nominators at AMPAS) that the efforts by Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman were able to uplift the children from the poverty and destitution they live in. In fact, that presumption is not true. I visited these children a number of times during the last couple of years and found out that almost all the children are now living even a worse life than they were in before Ms. Briski began working with them…At the same time, their sex worker parents believed that with so much unrestricted access to their secretive lives they had provided to the filmmakers, and that too, so generously (were their written consent ever requested and received by the filmmakers?), there would be a way their children would also be sharing some of the glories the filmmakers are now shining in. …The conjecture drawn by the makers of Born into Brothels that it was only them that were responsible for any humanity and benevolence doled out to these children and their parents is simply absurd. (February 1, 2005) Extract from SAMAR Magazine
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banana bread? what were you thinking?
TL Resident28 August 2005
I watched the director accept the Oscar, and I thought, something is not right. Then I decided to watch the documentary. It's got so many beautiful shots of kids, and the children are truly wonderful like all children really. However, about 10 minutes into the film the director makes her appearance, and that's where it goes downhill.

I couldn't help but recall that scene from the Simpsons when Apu's wife gives birth to octuplets and Marge Simpson bakes banana bread for them and brings it over, and it goes something like this: <>

Marge: I knew you had your hands full with the babies, so I baked you some banana bread.

Apu: (sarcastic) Oh hallelujah, our problems are solved. We have banana bread.

Marge: Well, you don't have to be sarcastic.

Marge: Maybe you two should get a nanny.

Apu: Yes, and what would I pay her with? Banana bread? Sorry, sorry, it's just that we haven't slept in days, and we're running out of money and ... banana bread? What the hell were you thinking? Banana bread. Apologize, apologize again. As a token of forgiveness, please take this baby.

What the filmmaker was thinking? That teaching kids photography (!!!) of all things can lift them out of poverty? Maybe she should've taught them some really useful skill, like reading or math? Anyone can do photography, and it seems that any well-intentioned westerner can afford to spend some time taking a walk "on the wild side", so afterwards they can sit around safely in their first-world country and pat each other on the back for all those humanitarian efforts that existed largely in their mind. I'm sure that the children benefited only marginally from their experience and are probably still living the same life as before.
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