Movie Review: Born Into Brothels

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
In 1995 New York photojournalist Zana Briski went to India to document the harsh conditions for women in a developing country. She was interested in female infanticide, child marriage, dowry deaths, and widowhood. A friend took her to Sonagachi, a red light district in Calcutta. She said she had no intention of photographing prostitutes, but felt that she found what she was meant to do there: "From the moment I stepped foot inside that maze of alleyways, I knew that this was the reason I had come to India." Briski developed close relationships with the women, and then with their children.

Briski noticed the children were fascinated with her and her photography and got the idea to teach them to document their lives with their own photos. Briski chose children who were eager to learn, and gave each a point and shoot camera to use. Even though Briski had never used a video camera before, she decided to film the process.

Briski asked Ross Kauffman to join her in Calcutta to help her chronicle the process. Academy Award nominated "Born into Brothels" is directed, produced and filmed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski. It is the poignant story of how Briski teaches the children to visually record their lives in the squalid margins of society, and how she advocates for them. We witness the frustrations, victories, and disappointments that ensue in a society where criminals' children are stigmatized and not accepted into the private schools.

Briski's students come from several generations of sex workers and drug dealers. The girls face the imminent specter of "joining the line." The mothers pressure the girls to start working so they can earn money from them. Briski lost a fourteen year-old students to "the line." The children see only addicted, violent men. One of the fathers smokes hashish all day.

The children have witnessed and experienced things that most of us never even have to think about. They are treated as little adults who have to cook and clean from early morning until late at night. One boy has to chase away non-paying customers. When mothers scream, hurling profanities at the children we see a boy spacing out and leaving - at least mentally - for a few moments.

When the children go for an outing to the zoo, usually fun for most children - the mood is sad as the children gaze at caged animals, projecting their angst and speaking in metaphors about their own imprisoned lives and unmet needs. One pensive boy, Gour, says "The animals are shut in their cages, and fed once a day -- and that's not enough."

In Briski's class the children are surprisingly focused and full of wisdom and perspective about their circumstances. But it turns out that it doesn't mean that they will always make the right decisions when offered opportunities to get out. They have that mysterious invisible thread that connects them to their mothers and their chaotic existence. As flawed as their mothers may seem to the outsider their children love them and want to stay with them as conflicted as the love might be.

The children each turn out to be impressive artists. One boy, Avijit emerges as a gifted photographer cum philosopher-poet and Briski fights for him to get opportunities to expand his horizons. Briski says she isn't a trained social worker or even a teacher, but she displays brilliant talents for both. The exquisite composition of "Born Into Brothels" with the cinematography, photos, narration, and music makes us feel like we are Briski's partners and takes us on this cross-cultural journey to the underbelly of Indian society. When the children are taken out to the broader Calcutta community to display their photos, they blossom as self-possessed experts of their art.

In San Francisco, this is Joan Widdifield for Movie Magazine.
More Information:
Born Into Brothels
2004, Documentary, Bengali with English subtitles and English