ambitions: empowering a group of disregarded Calcutta youth.
the restorative nature of art
Briski is a lanky, broad-gesturing idealist. Her hair is tied back
in a grad student's
ponytail and she brims with a feverish desire to make things better.
In the Oscar-winning documentary, "Born into
Brothels," we see her trucking officiously through crowded
Calcutta alleyways, towing a brood of starry-eyed kids and holding
an armload of frank, moody photographs.
Her ambitions are noble: To empower a group of disregarded
youth, and encourage them to think beyond a future of pimping and
prostitution. It's a tough job for any woman with a Western perspective
and a point-and-shoot camera. Fortunately, Briski holds a lot of
hope in her tiny, pinched shoulders and she remains indomitable.
"Born into Brothels" which Briski co-wrote and
directed along with Ross Kauffman is a photo-diary of her
efforts. Diverging from the scholarly, window-into-another-world
format, this is documentary activism at its best. Within the film's
85 minutes, optimism and realism collide in a way that is both heartbreaking
and uplifting. It's encouraging to witness the restorative nature
of art, not to mention the power of an individual's selfless social
But, while Brothels aims high, it ultimately misses some major
marks. The end result is a little too naive and life affirming for
its own good.
Briski, a New York-based photojournalist, began traveling to Sonagachi,
India, in early 1998 to document life in the Red Light District.
Her intentions were research oriented. She arranged herself in a
small, cramped apartment and observed this impenetrable, socially
ignored community for the next two years. What she saw was a colorful,
tough-talking clan of women who'd been working "in the line"
for generations. Their careers as prostitutes began as early as
flash of inspiration: seeing the District through young eyes.
It was the children of these women who grabbed Briski's attention
most. They were fascinated by her camera, often gathering at her
waist to peek at her work.
A natural teacher, Briski showed them how to take pictures. The
kids were thrilled with her attentiveness and she was taken by their
plight. In 2000, she had a flash of inspiration and organized a
She thought it would be interesting to see the District through
the eyes of its youngest residents. All at once, her subjects became
her collaborators and the idea of a documentary was born.
The eight children chronicled in the film are all of that charmed,
pre-teen age marked by plucky intelligence and profound awareness.
At the same time, they're delightfully ridiculous, funny, pervious,
sweet and sneaky. Among them is 12-year-old Avijit, a restlessly
creative, sometimes impetuous painter; Puja, an ebullient tomboy
who snaps daring street-level portraits; and Suchitra, a patient,
shy observer whose photo was chosen for the cover of Amnesty International's
The children's work albeit professionally cropped and edited
provides the film with its most arresting images.
The children thrive under the support of their teacher, whom they
affectionately refer to as "Zana Auntie." Many of them
show a natural flair for photography and Briski optimizes their
talent by organizing local exhibitions. She even arranges for one
child to represent the group at the World Press Photo Foundation
in Amsterdam. All of the profits go toward funding boarding-school
educations, i.e. escape routes from a future of sex work. This,
no doubt, is a grand endeavor.
Recent reviews rave about the movie's emphasis on the transformative
relationship between the children and their photography. Certainly,
this is true. But the film also focuses a great deal on Briski's
own reaction to the desolation of the Sonagachi brothels. There's
so much photo-trafficking and red-tape walking that, at times, Briski
seems to be on the set of a prime-time docudrama.
Somewhere in all of this, a measure of hope is lost. It seems a
little unfair to rush in, as with a Band-Aid, and encourage these
children to view themselves as artists in an environment that cannot
support their talents.
by the book: the print version professionally cropped
and edited is widely available.
About midway through the film, there's a scene in which the children
are packed into a cab where they're jovially being carted off to
a photo-op at a zoo. A yellow truck bumps along the road in front
of them and the camera focuses on the vehicle's bumper, where we
see the English words "Good Luck."
The frame lingers for a moment, then pans back to the kids, who
are alternately giggling and gazing out the window. If you remember
these words later, they seem a little flip next to the harsh social
arrangements of the brothel. It makes you wonder what kind of adults
these children might become if they're able to hang onto the sweet,
ephemeral experience that Briski has provided them.
But that's another documentary altogether.